Kim used his annual New Year address to warn he has a “nuclear button” on his table, but sweetened his remarks by expressing an interest in dialogue and taking part in the Pyeongchang Games next month.
South Korea’s unification minister Cho Myoung-Gyon told a press conference that Seoul was “reiterating our willingness to hold talks with the North at any time and place in any form.”
“The government proposes to hold high-level government talks with North Korea on January 9 at the Peace House in Panmunjom,” Cho said, referring to a truce village on the border between the two Koreas.
“We hope that the South and North can sit face to face and discuss the participation of the North Korean delegation at the Pyeongchang Games as well as other issues of mutual interest for the improvement of inter-Korean ties.”
The Koreas, divided by a Demilitarised Zone since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, last held high-level talks in 2015 to try to ease tensions.
Those talks failed to reach an agreement.
“Just the fact that they are meeting will be meaningful because it signals an attempt on both sides to improve relations,” said Koh Yu-Hwan, a political science professor at Dongguk University.
But once they sit down, the North could put Seoul in a difficult position by making unacceptable demands such as an end to its annual joint military drills with the United States, Koh added.
“What North Korea is trying to do is re-establish its relations as a nuclear state (with Seoul). The South’s dilemma is whether we can accept that.”
South Korean President Moon Jae-In, who has long favored engagement to ease tensions with the North, earlier Tuesday welcomed Kim’s suggestion of an opportunity for dialogue.
However, he indicated that improvements in ties must go hand in hand with steps toward denuclearization of the North.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump sounded open to the possibility of an inter-Korean dialogue.
In a morning tweet, Trump said the US-led campaign of sanctions and other pressure were beginning to have a “big impact” on North Korea. He referred to the recent, dramatic escape of at least two North Korean soldiers across the heavily militarized border into South Korea. But he also alluded to Kim’s comments Monday that he was willing to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics, which will be hosted by South Korea next month.
“Soldiers are dangerously fleeing to South Korea. Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not — we will see!” Trump said, using his derisive moniker for the young North Korean leader.
The US administration, however, will be suspicious of any effort by Kim to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. Pyongyang could view a closer relationship with Seoul has a way for reducing its growing international isolation and relief from sanctions that are starting to bite the North’s meager economy.
In his New Year’s address, Kim repeated fiery nuclear threats against the United States. He said he has a “nuclear button” on his office desk and warned that “the whole territory of the US is within the range of our nuclear strike.”
Kim’s overture was welcome news for a South Korean government led by liberal President Moon Jae-in, who is less confrontational toward North Korea than Trump and favors dialogue to ease the North’s nuclear threats. Moon has long said he sees the Pyeongchang Olympics as a chance to improve inter-Korean ties.
North Korea did not immediately react to the South’s proposal. If there are talks, they would be the first formal dialogue between the Koreas since December 2015. Pyongyang has rattled the international community in recent months with multiple missile launches and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test — purportedly of a hydrogen bomb.
It has shrugged off a raft of new sanctions and heightened rhetoric from Washington as it drives forward with its weapons program, which it says is for defense against US aggression.
Kim’s comments on Monday were the first indication of North Korea’s willingness to take part in the Winter Games from February 9-25.
Moon called them a “positive response” to Seoul’s hopes that the Pyeongchang Olympics would be a “groundbreaking opportunity for peace” and urged officials to come up with measures to realize the North’s participation.
Beijing, Pyongyang’s main ally, also welcomed developments.
“We support the two sides in taking advantage of this opportunity to make concrete efforts to improve bilateral ties... and realize the denuclearization of the peninsula,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
Washington considers China key to a resolution of the crisis on the Korean peninsula, and has asked Beijing to do more to rein in Pyongyang.
While China has supported UN Security Council sanctions against North Korea, it has proposed a freeze-for-freeze approach under which the US would stop military drills in South Korea and the North would halt its weapons programs.
But the idea has been rejected by Washington and Seoul, and Pyongyang insists it will continue its nuclear and missile projects.
In his speech Monday the North’s leader said the Olympics could provide a reason for officials from the neighbors “to meet in the near future.”
“Since we are compatriots of the same blood as south Koreans, it is natural for us to share their pleasure over the auspicious event and help them,” Kim said in his address.
The main venues for the Games are just 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the heavily fortified border with North Korea and the build-up to the event has been overshadowed by the nuclear weapons standoff.
But Seoul and the Games’ organizers are very keen for the North to take part.
Analysts say its participation at Pyeongchang is likely, given Kim’s remarks about sending a delegation there.
Two North Korean athletes — pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik — qualified for the Games but Pyongyang’s Olympic Committee missed an October 30 deadline to confirm to the International Skating Union that they would participate.
They could still be invited to compete by the International Olympic Committee.