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South Korea welcomes North's offer of talks, proposes to meet next week

Soldiers stand guard outside of meeting rooms that straddle the border between North and South Korea in Panmunjom along the Demilitarized Zone, April 19, 2017. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times Copyright 2018)

BEIJING - South Korea welcomed on Tuesday an offer of talks from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ahead of next month's Winter Olympics, and suggested the two sides meet as early as next week.

The offer of talks could lead to a temporary easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula. But experts reacted cautiously to the initiative, warning that North Korea was most likely borrowing from a well-worn playbook, hoping to win relief from sanctions and buy time to improve its nuclear program without offering any real concessions.

In a New Year's Day speech on Monday, Kim said he wanted to ease tensions with the South, was willing to send a delegation to the Olympics and suggested the two sides meet to discuss the idea.

Seoul's Unification Minister responded in a televised news conference Tuesday with an offer to meet as soon as Jan. 9 at the shared border village of Panmunjom to discuss cooperation over the Olympics and how to improve overall ties, news agencies reported. Talks, if they take place, would be the first in more than two years.

Minister Cho Myoung-gyon said the offer of talks had been discussed with the United States, but that a decision had not yet been reached on whether to postpone South Korea's next round of joint military drills with the United States until after the Olympics.

North Korea sees those drills as preparations for war, and South Korea's President Moon Jae-in said last month he had asked the U.S. military to postpone the joint exercises until after the Olympics.

Moon favors dialogue to reduce tensions with Pyongyang and sees the Olympics as a "groundbreaking chance" to improve ties and achieve peace. His government is also extremely keen to see the Games pass off successfully.

But Kim had stonewalled his efforts -- until this week, when he finally said he wanted to improve the "frozen" relations between the two Koreas and would "open our doors to anyone" from the South who sincerely wishes national concord and unity.

"We earnestly wish the Olympic Games a success," he said, according to the North's official KCNA news agency. "From this point of view we are willing to dispatch our delegation and adopt other necessary measures; with regard to this matter, the authorities of the North and the South may meet together soon."

President Donald Trump said sanctions and other pressure "are beginning to have a big impact on North Korea," citing the defection of two soldiers from the North across the Demilitarized Zone into the South in recent weeks. "Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time," he tweeted, referring to Kim. "Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not - we will see!"

South Korea's Moon welcomed Kim's address, and responded by asking his government to move as quickly as possible to bring North Korea to the Olympics. Unification Minister Cho wasted no time in trying to pin down a date.

"We look forward to candidly discussing interests from both sides face-to-face with North Korea along with the North's participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics," Cho said. "I repeat, the government is open to talking with North Korea, regardless of time, location and form."

Talks could offer an opportunity to dial down tensions on the Korean peninsula, after a year when war has emerged as a real risk. China's foreign ministry welcomed what it called "positive steps" by both sides and hoped they would "take advantage of this opportunity and make concrete efforts in improving bilateral ties, and realize denuclearization of the peninsula," according to spokesman Geng Shuang.

But Daniel Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia under PresidentBarack Obama and is now senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said Kim's aim is to "divide and conquer."

"Kim wants to unwind sanctions and clearly sees President Moon's angst over the Olympics as the weak link in the allied chain," he said. "Diplomacy is always the preferred option and this opening should be explored carefully. But it would be naive to expect North Korea to negotiate in good faith or consider itself bound by new agreements given its past record."

Russel said the North Korean leader's behavior fitted into a familiar pattern, with the threat of the "nuclear button" on Kim's desk, combined with the "enticement" of talks.

"Pyongyang's pattern is to raise tensions to a fever pitch, dangle a conciliatory offer, collect any and all concessions, then rinse and repeat," he said. "The key to disrupting this pattern and compelling North Korea into credible negotiations over its nuclear program - which is the goal of the sanctions - is maintaining unity between the U.S. and South Korea, as well as Japan, China and Russia."

Evan Medeiros, who was the National Security Council's Asia director in the Obama administration and now heads the Eurasia Group's coverage of the Asia-Pacific region, argued that North Korea was trying to seek some sanctions relief as international pressure mounts, and was also "playing for time" as its works on improving its intercontinental ballistic missile program.

"I think in the interim there'll be a temporary reduction in tensions, but ultimately this is going to fail, and it's not going to open up some big chasm between Washington and Seoul," he said.

He noted that South Korea's Moon had said on Tuesday that Seoul would have to coordinate the next steps with its allies and neighbors, according to the Yonhap news agency. Moon said that inter-Korean ties could not be improved independently of the North Korean nuclear issue.

It is far from clear what terms Kim might try to attach to talks, or what he would bring to the table, said Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Is his government prepared, for example, to announce a suspension of nuclear and missile tests? "Because if they don't, I don't see any realistic possibility of any kind of discussion, and certainly not a negotiation with the North," he said.

Kim's declaration on Monday that he had completed his goal of creating a nuclear deterrent capable of reaching the United States could potentially be the platform for such a suspension, experts say. But they also point out that his statement was effectively a bluff: the North has demonstrated it can deliver a ballistic missile to the United States but not that it could weaponize such a missile with a nuclear warhead, and it would need more tests to demonstrate that ability.

The idea of North Korea attending the Winter Olympics is also not one that meets universal approval.

"The international community was appalled by South Africa's apartheid regime and banned the country from participating in Olympics," said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "But in response to North Korea's far more egregious human rights violations - which the United Nations has ruled too be 'crimes against humanity' - the world allows and even encourages North Korea to participate. Why the double standard?"

Klingner said there is a long history of failed attempts to moderate North Korean behavior by entreating Pyongyang to participate in sporting and other cultural events, recalling the 2000 Sydney Olympics when the two Koreas marched behind a single non-national flag in return for secret payments to the North and other concessions -- a symbolic gesture that failed to improve Pyongyang's behavior.

"Yet with each new attempt there is breathless anticipation that this time will work," he said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the United States should boycott the Olympics if North Korea attends.

"Allowing Kim Jong Un's North Korea to participate in Winter Olympics would give legitimacy to the most illegitimate regime on the planet," he tweeted. "I'm confident South Korea will reject this absurd overture and fully believe that if North Korea goes to the Winter Olympics, we do not."

Author information: The Washington Post's Amber Ziye Wang in Beijing contributed to this report. Simon Denyer is The Post’s bureau chief in Beijing.