SEOUL, South Korea — The first high-level talks between North and South Korea in more than two years will use the subject of the upcoming Winter Olympics as an off-ramp for discussions about other issues, according to experts.
The summit started Tuesday in the so-called Peace House in Panmunjom, a village in the Demilitarized Zone between the two rivals.
The sensitive discussions were expected to continue for hours and were closed to outside observers. Their substance and tenor may not become clear until they are concluded.
South Korean officials and analysts say the central thrust will likely revolve around the North’s participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, which start on Feb. 9.
More substantive dialogue over tensions on the Korean Peninsula and Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program will take time but analysts say the talks are an important starting point.
“Seoul would want to focus on the logistics of North Korea’s participation in the Olympics, because the North’s participation is a critical moment for South Korea,” said Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, a think tank in Seoul.
“It wants to use the North’s participation as a turning point, or an ‘off-ramp’ to continued in-depth discussions on how to improve inter-Korean relations, and how to revive inter-Korean cooperation projects and exchanges that have been dead for a long time now.”
On Monday, a spokesperson for South Korea’s Unification Ministry said its delegation would prepare to discuss the issue of families separated by the Korean War in 1950-53 and ways to ease military tensions. It wouldn’t say, however, how large a role those topics would play in the dialogue.
Only hours after the U.S. and South Korea decided last Thursday to suspend military exercises during the Olympics, North Korea notified the South via fax that it agreed to join talks starting Tuesday.
“When the ancient Greeks used to hold the Olympics, they held a truce,” said Moon Chung-in, a special adviser on foreign affairs and national security to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. “We are living in a civilized world. It is the logical choice.”
With the Olympics only weeks away, the participation of North Korean athletes also requires agreement from the International Olympic Committee in Geneva, as North Korea missed a key deadline for registration.
The Associated Press, citing Japanese media, reported Sunday that a delegation from North Korea was en route to Geneva.
The IOC declined to confirm this when contacted by NBC News, although it did say it was considering allowing the North Koreans to participate.
Two North Korean figure skaters have qualified for the games, and one issue that must be addressed during the negotiations is how they would travel to PyeongChang and where they would stay.
More than half of South Koreans surveyed support helping to cover the expenses of the North Korean delegation, according to a poll taken last Friday and reported in Yonhap News.
Ahead of the Olympics, Seoul and Pyongyang are likely to keep the focus on Olympic issues, before touching on more sensitive topics like economic cooperation projects or military relations.
“For the South Korean president, he’s staking his political future on inter-Korean reconciliation, and he wants to try to broker U.S.-North Korea talks,” said Kim, of the Korean Peninsula Future Forum.
But for Pyongyang, the Olympics transcend relations with the South.
“For the North it would be an opportunity, an international platform, to raise its profile and its standing in the world,” Kim added.
Kim Jong Un’s goal in allowing his country to take part in the games is to try to convince the world that North Korea is not a dangerous, rogue state, she said.
The North Korean leader wants to show that his country is “a peace-loving, normal power and, ‘by the way our nuclear weapons are only for peace — or only for self-defensive purposes,'” Kim added.
However, the risk that the renewed dialogue will be undermined by actions seen as “provocative” by either party remains high, even before a thaw could lead to talks with other countries, such as the United States or China.
“The sooner talks with Americans get going at a high level, the better,” said John Delury, an associate professor of East Asian studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies.
South Korean presidential adviser Moon Chung-in said that the negotiations were an opportunity, and that it was up to Pyongyang to take advantage. “Self-restraint will send a very good message to Washington and Seoul,” he said.
North Korea hasn’t engaged in negotiations over its nuclear program since the collapse of the “six-party” talks in 2009 involving North and South Korea, China, the U.S., Russia and Japan.
Those talks were aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, but Pyongyang pulled out after facing international criticism for testing a missile.
Even with the talks, there is no guarantee that Pyongyang will actually take part in the Olympics next month.
“It’s never over until it’s over,” Duyeon Kim said. “We just won’t know until the North shows up, or doesn’t show up, at the Games.”