On January 1, 2018, the leader of the DPRK Kim Jong-un delivered a traditional New Year message, which is perceived as a «task for the current year» and is an important statement from the point of view of determining the country’s leadership goals. The final part of the text was devoted to the relations between the North and the South, which, according to Kim, were «in a difficult infarct state.» «Without putting an end to such an abnormal state it is impossible to avoid the catastrophe of nuclear war, imposed by external forces», and therefore it is «necessary to take radical measures for the improvement of inter-Korean relations».
These measures included «joint efforts to ease military tension and create a peaceful environment», including Seoul’s non-participation in the «reckless nuclear military actions of the United States», Pyongyang’s readiness to «open the way to dialogue, contacts and movements» to all those who wish national reconciliation. Kim Jong-un reminded, that «inter-Korean relations is an internal issue of our nation, and masters of the solution should be the North and South. «As to the Winter Olympic Games, «we wholeheartedly wish them a successful opening» and «are ready to take the necessary measures, including the sending of our delegation.»
Seoul paid attention to the statement about the Olympics. On January 4 representatives of the two countries already used the restored hotline, and Seoul invited Pyongyang to hold high-level talks at the border crossing point Panmunjom. The last time such negotiations between the DPRK and South Korea were held in December 2015.
The results of the talks were positively evaluated by both sides, and the essence of the agreements can be summarized as follows:
• A decision was taken to «actively promote» the Olympic Games so that «they serve as a good moment to demonstrate the great image of the nation.» In this context, the DPRK sends to South Korea a representative «high-level delegation», which, in addition to high-ranking officials and athletes themselves, will include a group of fans, a group of artists, an art ensemble, a Taekwondo demo team and journalists. Technical details are to be discussed later «through the exchange of documents» or during the working negotiations. The first round will be held on January 15.
• «The North and South decided to make joint efforts to ease military tension, create a peaceful environment on the Korean peninsula and promote national reconciliation and cohesiveness.» Thus, negotiations on the military line are being resumed in order to prevent border conflicts. Military «hot line» between the South and North did not work for about two years after the nuclear test in 2016. Its main aim is to prevent accidental armed clashes.
• It was also decided to «intensify contacts and movements, exchange and cooperation in different spheres». Something similar was discussed in 2015, but without success because of amorphous wording and the changed political situation. Experts tend to see here an indication for an early meeting of representatives of separated families, which the southerners offered to arrange in February in honor of the Lunar New Year holiday.
• «The North and South agreed to respect the inter-Korean declarations and to resolve all issues of inter-Korean relations on the principle of the common forces of our nation and through dialogue and consultations»: this wording is also ceremonial, but here there is an attempt to build a continuity of relations that is based on the results of inter-Korean summits of 2000 and 2007.
• The southerners tried to discuss the problem of the Korean peninsula denuclearization, but after the head of the DPRK delegation expressed discontent and flatly refused to touch upon the issue in the framework of inter-Korean talks, the topic was taken under the carpet.
• «The parties decided to organize high-level negotiations between the North and South to improve inter-Korean relations and settle differences,» but the schedule and composition of the delegations is not yet determined.
Direct dialogue between representatives of the South and North Korea is welcomed in Moscow, the UN and the IOC. The American reaction was more restrained. For Washington it is important that the North Korean participation in the Olympics does not violate the sanctions of the UN Security Council. In general, although «the US does not oppose direct talks between Seoul and Pyongyang», the Americans doubt the sincerity of the DPRK’s intentions — Kim’s proposal may be aimed at drawing Seoul away from Washington or to cause frictions.
In any way from a tactical point of view Kim Jong-un got a plus for his reputation, and for supporters of the idea of an unpredictable regime refusing to dialogue it could be more difficult to find arguments. President Moon Jae-in acquires certain safety guarantees for the Olympics, because a number of countries are afraid to send their athletes to the games if the inter-Korean confrontation is high.
The main question, however, is what will happen next. Will there be attempts by Seoul to disown part of the concluded agreements in a different political environment (the style of the South Korean president often depends on the «situation»)? After all, during the telephone conversation between the presidents of the United States and South Korea in the evening of January 10, the leader of the South Korea stressed that successful negotiations were possible thanks to the assistance of Donald Trump. Thus, the DPRK initiative is already being disavowed by presenting a gesture of goodwill as a result of the forced measures dictated by sanctions.
Another serious question is whether the financial support for the participation of North Korea in the Olympics violates the sanctions regime, and it will be up to the South Korean officials to work together with the UN sanctions committee and the US government. For example, the arrival of the DPRK delegation by sea is problematic, since ships that have visited North Korean ports during the previous 12 months are prohibited from entering the ports of South Korea. Sporting equipment is also sanctionable goods, and it is forbidden to transfer it to North Korean sportsmen for permanent use.
Therefore, it is better to be careful to speculate about who beat whom, let us wait until the end of the Olympics. In any case, even such a warming of relations between the North and South decreases the probability of a conflict on the peninsula.