SEOUL -- North Korea maintained the upper hand in its momentous talks with the South on Tuesday, refusing to budge even an inch on its pursuit of nuclear weapons program, signaling further challenges ahead for Seoul's efforts to resolve the standoff.
On the whole, the first inter-Korean talks since December 2015 were a civil affair. Ri Son Gwon, head of the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, said at the outset that he sought meaningful results -- a "New Year's gift" to his people. Seoul's Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon agreed that the South would do its best to ensure that present was a good one. Each led a delegation of five officials.
To be sure, the two sides walked away with something to show for their efforts. Pyongyang agreed to send officials, athletes, supporters and press to the Pyeongchang Olympics in February, according to a joint press statement released after the meeting. The games helped spark the dialogue to begin with. After Northern leader Kim Jong Un said Jan. 1 that the North was prepared to send athletes, the South convinced the U.S. to postpone annual military exercises scheduled to coincide with the games, drawing Pyongyang to the table for what turned out to be more than 10 hours of talks.
The two sides have also agreed to take further steps, including holding talks between military leaders, to ease military tensions and bring peace. South Korea has long called for such military dialogue.
Yet Pyongyang has succeeded in skirting the issue of its nuclear development. South Korean officials urged their counterparts to cease actions such as missile and nuclear tests that heighten tensions on the peninsula and discuss steps toward peace, including denuclearization. But at the final group meeting of the day, Ri shot back that denuclearization was not on the table, calling reports in the South that it was "ridiculous." The North's "strategic weapons" are aimed at the U.S., not the South, he said, adding that "mistaken reports" on the matter would hinder successful talks. Ri denied that denuclearization had been discussed when asked after the meeting.
Nor did the South's proposal to resume inter-Korean Red Cross talks, with an eye toward reuniting families separated by the Korean War, make it into the joint statement.
Pyongyang views its missiles and nuclear weapons as a matter of survival. While Kim's New Year's address certainly included overtures to Seoul, the North also ordered the deployment of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. Rather than press the matter on Tuesday and risk having talks break down, the South elected to secure its most pressing goal of bringing the North to the Olympics, leaving the topic of denuclearization for another day.
The talks created an opportunity to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula, Cho told reporters after Tuesday's meeting. While Seoul still intends to faithfully implement sanctions and put pressure on Pyongyang, North Korea's participation is essential to a peaceful Olympics, the government said Tuesday. If further action regarding sanctions is needed to that end, Seoul will weigh its response in cooperation with the United Nations, the U.S. and other allies, the government said.
South Korea and America's decision to postpone their annual Foal Eagle military exercises during the Olympics provides time for the North to consider its next move. Pyongyang could demand that Seoul ease up on sanctions in repayment for a successful Olympics, for example, and may already have asked the South to cancel or scale down the military drills.
The U.S., however, looks to move forward with drills after the Olympics and Paralympics wrap up in mid-March, potentially raising tensions in the region before progress toward denuclearization can be made.
Prospects are dim for direct talks between the North and the U.S., which is what Pyongyang would like most, and so the North is taking advantage of the South's eagerness for reconciliation, said Shunji Hiraiwa, a professor at Nanzan University in Nagoya, Japan. Those who attended Tuesday's talks are not people capable of discussing the nuclear issue, he said.
"If South Korea makes a fuss, the joint military exercises could be pushed back as far as May," said Masao Okonogi, an expert on North Korea at Keio University in Tokyo.
Resolving inter-Korean issues is up to the people on both sides of the border, Tuesday's joint press statement said.