SEOUL—South Korea sought unsuccessfully to raise the North’s nuclear program during bilateral talks, but the two sides reached a deal Tuesday for Pyongyang to participate in the Winter Olympics and agreed to revive cross-border military communications, as Seoul pursues a diplomatic path to try to end the long-running standoff.
The face-to-face discussionsat the demilitarized zone that divides the peninsula were the two Koreas’ first since December 2015, and they came as the Trump administration leads a global push to isolate the North, which has been hit with tougher international sanctions in response to its weapons tests.
A joint statement released after Tuesday’s talks contained no mention of the North’s atomic-weapons program, and South Korean officials said Pyongyang’s delegates had voiced anger when Seoul broached the North’s weapons program.
In a briefing after the talks, North Korea’s chief delegate, Ri Son Gwon, said it was “ridiculous” to raise the subject of the North’s nuclear weapons, which he said were “strictly aimed at the U.S.”
“They do not target our brethren, nor do they target China and Russia,” he said.
The two Koreas also agreed to hold military talks to reduce tensions, though it wasn’t clear when they would occur.
The North’s lack of willingness to discuss denuclearization failed to extinguish suspicion that the regime is buying time to complete its nuclear program.
North Korea is just “taking a break” and trying to find relief from sanctions, said Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean presidential national security adviser. Pyongyang will try to perfect its missile technologies through more weapons tests later in the year, he added.
Seoul’s government said it would continue work with the U.S., China and Japan to “fundamentally resolve” regional disagreements over the North’s weapons development.
South Korean officials said they had sought a resumption of family reunions for those separated from their loved ones by the 1950-53 Korean War. There was no word Tuesday night on whether the North had accepted the proposal.
As negotiators arrived on a frigid winter morning, Mr. Ri said the two sides should “present the people with a precious New Year’s gift.”
“There is a saying that a journey taken by two lasts longer than one traveled alone,” he said.
Cho Myoung-gyon, the South’s Unification Minister and lead negotiator, spoke of a strong desire to see peace and reconciliation between the two Koreas, and said he believed the Games at the South Korean ski resort of Pyeongchang would be a “peace Olympics.”
North Korea will send a delegation of athletes, a taekwondo demonstration team, high-level officials, supporters and journalists to Pyeongchang, the joint statement said.
The two Koreas spent roughly 10 hours in discussions at Panmunjom truce village, the only spot on the inter-Korean border where both sides’ forces face off just a few feet apart. The negotiators broke briefly for lunch, but the two delegations didn’t eat together, said
a member of the South Korean delegation.
The Trump administration has expressed wariness about the inter-Korean talks, warning that North Korean dictator
Kim Jong Un
could be trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. The U.S. wasn’t present at Tuesday’s meeting.
a senior policy adviser at the State Department, said in a call with reporters that it was premature to call the discussions the beginning of something larger.
“It’s a start,” said Mr. Hook, who added that Pyongyang likely agreed to the talks because of the U.S. pressure campaign against North Korea. “The president believes that if we didn’t have the pressure campaign, they wouldn’t be talking at all right now,” he added.
North Korean involvement in the Olympics would make Pyongyang much less likely to carry out a provocation during the Games, said
deputy head of Asia-Pacific country risk at IHS Markit.
Still, on the most pressing issue roiling the peninsula—the North’s weapons program—there was no clear progress from Tuesday’s discussions.
The meeting, though, was an opening for the two sides after a year of tensions fueled by the Kim regime’s missile tests and the North Korean leader’s bellicose exchanges with President
In response to its weapons tests, the North has been hit by tougher international sanctions that Mr. Kim acknowledged in a Jan. 1 speech were taking a toll on the economy—a factor some observers of the regime have said likely motivated it to seek talks.
The talks also followed an agreement between the U.S. and South Korea to delay two annual military exercises, known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, so that they wouldn’t clash with next month’s Winter Olympics and the subsequent Paralympics, which end on Mar. 18.
China, which has been anxious about the tensions on its doorstep, welcomed the meeting and indirectly urged the U.S., Japan and others to be supportive.
“We also hope these talks will make a good start to improve inter-Korean relations, promote their reconciliation and cooperation and ease the tension on the peninsula,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.
But security analysts weren’t optimistic that Tuesday’s negotiations would deliver lasting results.
North Korea has used the Key Resolve and Foal Eagle exercises as justification for missile testing in the spring in recent years, said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.
“If the field exercises are pushed back, Pyongyang may delay launches to avoid interfering with the Olympics,” he said. But North Korea has entered the final stage of its weapons testing and will seek to test additional missiles this year, Mr. Mount said.
While Washington has said it is considering military action against Pyongyang, South Korean President
has taken a more dovish line, insisting that the nuclear crisis can be resolved only peacefully and extending olive branches to Pyongyang.
Earlier Tuesday, the North Korean delegation appeared to catch the South off guard when they proposed opening the meeting to the news media.
Mr. Cho, the South’s main representative, smiled as he declined the offer.
—Jonathan Cheng in Seoul and Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this article.
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