South Korea Quick to Warm to Kim’s Olympics Icebreaker

Dreams of an inter-Korean team, and a thaw in relations, burn bright in Seoul

On the first working day of 2018, hopeful South Korean officials scrambled to respond to the olive branch extended yesterday by Kim Jong-un. In his customary New Year’s address, the North Korean leader said he wanted North and South to “immediately” meet.

At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon proposed a high-level meeting with North Korean officials at the truce village of Panmunjeom in the De-Militarized Zone on Jan 9.

It was not clear who be involved the delegation, but a ministry official clarified after the press  briefing: “I would presume ministerial level.” The agenda remains open, but it looks set to focus on the issue of North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the official added. The Games are set to take place in South Korea between Feb 9–25.

In his customary New Year’s broadcast, Kim  said he was “open to dialogue” with the South and was ready to discuss participation in Pyeongchang. In fact, only two North Korean skaters have qualified for the Games, and did not register to compete by the October deadline.

Still, Seoul responded with alacrity to Kim’s speech. The South Korean presidential office responded within hours, saying that Seoul was ready to talk “any time, any place, in any format.”

And at a cabinet meeting earlier on Tuesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in urged his unification and sports ministers to take steps to include North Koreans in Pyeongchang.

Kim’s New Year’s address was a gift to the South Korean president. The liberal Moon has been consistently clear that he wants to engage with Pyongyang, and has said that a North Korean presence at the 2018 Winter Olympics could be a first step toward improved inter-Korean relations. Last June, he called for a joint inter-Korean team.

However, Moon’s requests for dialog have been ignored and rebuffed as Kim expended his rhetorical ammunition on his war of words with the United States President Donald Trump.

The only significant inter-Korean contact of Moon’s administration took place in June, during the 2017 World Taekwondo Championships in Muju, South Korea, which was attended by a North Korean delegation.

In Muju, Moon suggested fielding an inter-Korean team for Pyeongchang. But a promised return invitation for South Koreans to attend a taekwondo championship in Pyongyang, North Korea, in September, was never received as relations deteriorated and contacts dried up.

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