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What to expect from North, South Korea meeting

Fabian Kretschmer Seoul
January 8, 2018

Delegations from North and South Korea are holding talks for the first time in over two years. Despite symbolic significance, a breakthrough is not to be expected. Fabian Kretschmer reports from Seoul.

South Korean PM Lee Nak-Yon holds the Winter Olympics torch
Image: Getty Images/C. Sung-Jun

After over two years of unofficial silence, two high-ranking delegations from North and South Korea were meeting on Tuesday. The South Korean delegation, led by unification minister Cho Myoung Gyon, will make its way in the morning to Panmunjom. There they will meet a five-member delegation from North Korea. The symbolic town serves as a neutral meeting point for the two sides and is where the Korean armistice agreement was signed in 1953.

The first item on the agenda is the possible participation of North Korean athletes in next month's Winter Olympics. And this already seems to be a done deal. North Korea's single member on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Chang Un, told reporters at the Beijing airport that North Korea would "probably" participate in the Olympic Games.

Chang was on his way to Lausanne, where he will meet with IOC president Thomas Bach, and is expected to discuss financial support for North Korean winter athletes. According to a representative survey, over half of South Koreans would support such a measure.

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games begin on February 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea — 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the North Korean border.

Read more: North Korea could take part in Winter Olympics, says Kim

Pyeongchang as the 'Olympics for peace'

"If North Korea participates at Pyeongchang, it would enhance the profile of the Olympics as a force for peace," said Kang Kyung Hwa, South Korea's minister of foreign affairs. But Seoul's current policy on Olympic invitations is not without controversy.

In 1988, when South Korea hosted the Summer Olympics, the South African Apartheid regime was excluded. Conversely, North Korea, the regime with the worst worldwide human rights record, is being invariably welcomed.

Foreign Minster Kang also made it clear that South Korea has expectations for the meeting that go beyond athletic diplomacy. The Ministry of Unification in Seoul has said it would pursue the unification of families that were separated by the Korean War. Minister Cho said this could help ease military tension. There was no mention of tougher issues, such as disarmament, being on the agenda. 

As unification minister, Cho Myoung Go has a lot of experience in negotiating with North Korea. He was present at the last high-level meeting of Korean leaders in 2007. It was the last time the heads of both states met directly. Cho's North Korean counterpart and delegation leader is Ri Song Kwon. Ri is the chairman of the "Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland," and is a high-ranking military official and close confidant of Kim Jong Un.

Read more:

North Korea reopens hotline to South to talk Olympics

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No compromise on critical issues

South Korea's left-leaning President Moon Jae In has devoted his political career on seeking dialogue with Pyongyang. But his maneuvering room with North Korea is still restricted.

"He has to justify with Washington all concessions that he makes or receives — something that is currently very difficult," Andray Abrahamian, a guest fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told DW.

Abrahamian doubts that Washington and Pyongyang are prepared for any major compromises on central issues. North Korea will not negotiate its nuclear program and South Korea will not completely back out of military cooperation with the US.

"The window of opportunity for negotiation could close soon," said Abrahamian.

Other recent attempts at inter-Korean rapprochement have not yielded results. In 2015, Kim Jong Un expressed a willingness for closer relations with the South during his New Year's address. Former South Korean President Park Geun Hye offered unconditional talks — but this fizzled out.

Conservatives in South Korea see North Korea's attempts at closer relations as an attempt to drive a wedge between the US-South Korean alliance. The right-leaning South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo recently wrote that the North is only holding bait under the nose of its southern neighbor. "Kim does not intend to ever give up his nuclear program. He just wants to buy more time."

Read more:

Kim Jong Un: North Korea has completed nuclear program, US will never attack

North Korea nuclear tests spread fear among German Winter Olympic teams