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Korea talks ease tension, for now

North-South dialogue achieves short-term gains but long-term solution must involve US

High-level officials from North and South Korea met at the Peace House at Panmunjom for the first time in two years and agreed on an agenda limited to securing North Korea's full participation in the Pyeongchang Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.

North Korea's participation in the Olympics provides South Korea with an essential near-term basis for expecting that North Korea will not spoil an international showpiece and eases the tattered nerves of athletes and Olympic officials worried about the political tensions.

But can the Olympic agreement provide momentum toward averting conflict with a North Korea that seems intent on targeting the U.S. with its nuclear and missile arsenal?

Although the initial round of talks was confined to North Korea's Olympic Games participation, there were attempts to expand the negotiations. The two sides took a tangible step toward stronger conflict management by re-establishing an inter-Korean military hotline to address conflicts in the West Sea near the demarcation line between the two Koreas. The opening of inter-Korean military talks could plausibly introduce a venue to discuss confidence building measures designed to further reduce inter-Korean tensions. In addition, the South Korean side has proposed opening of talks next month on possible reunions of divided families, though the plan has not yet been accepted by North Korea.

But that all said, the North Korean lead negotiator, Ri Son Gwon, who chairs the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country (CPRC), objected to media reports indicating that his counterpart, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, had called for North Korea to return to denuclearization talks. In a significant statement, he argued that North Korean nuclear capabilities are only targeted at the U.S., not at South Korea, China or Russia.

The North clearly regards the nuclear issue as suitable only for dialogue with the U.S. This will not stop South Korea from probably continuing to probe North Korean willingness to pursue open nuclear negotiations with Washington, both through working-level discussions and in talks with senior North Korean delegates who will now attend the Pyeongchang games.

But they will need to tread carefully. A North Korean focus on inter-Korean tension reduction not accompanied by nuclear negotiations with the U.S. could be designed by Pyongyang to use South Korea as a shield against further escalation of tensions and to drive a possible wedge in the U.S.-South Korean alliance.

South Korean lead negotiator Cho said that the North Korean delegation had acknowledged the U.S. and South Korean decision to delay military exercises until after the Olympics while requesting an additional delay. Cho also indirectly acknowledged that there had been a general but no detailed discussion of the status of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a joint commercial park in which South Korean companies provided capital and equipment while North Korea provided labor. It operated for over a decade until its closure in February 2016 following North Korea's fourth nuclear test.

Complex challenge

By opening inter-Korean talks and securing North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics, President Moon Jae-in's administration can credibly rebut those who say that it is too dangerous to participate in the Winter Olympic Games in tension-fraught South Korea. North Korean cooperation to join the games as participants will be an enormously reassuring signal to athletes, officials and spectators who might otherwise have hesitated to come to South Korea due to rising tensions.

But South Korea's long-term objective is for the talks themselves to gain sufficient momentum to reduce tensions and contribute to longer-term peace on the Korean Peninsula. To achieve this objective, Moon must secure continued engagement by Kim Jong Un and rely on continued support from the U.S.

The administration of President Donald Trump will remain cautiously skeptical that inter-Korean talks will have positive spillover effects on Korean tensions beyond the Olympic Games themselves. But Washington also would be ill-advised to stand in the way of tangible progress in inter-Korean tension reduction measures as long as the international pressure campaign remains largely intact. Many North Korean demands may be easily deflected by South Korea, but some may become issues of difference between Washington and Seoul. These differences are best handled through inter-governmental coordination channels rather than through presidential tweets.

A more complex challenge for Washington and Seoul would arise if North Korea tries to simultaneously pursue missile testing and inter-Korean tension-reduction measures. The Trump administration would then oppose inter-Korean talks, Moon's domestic support for pursuing such a conciliatory path would erode, and the U.S. and North Korea would continue to be on a trajectory toward confrontation.

The talks themselves also serve as an unwelcome reminder of North Korea's capability to play the spoiler role, South Korea's dependence on cooperation from North Korea to assert its accomplishments on the global stage, and the geopolitical fault lines that generate political risk around the Korean Peninsula. But they are also a rare instrument and opportunity for South Korea to expand North Korea's communications with the outside world while continuing to work with the U.S. and the international community on the long-term task of peninsular denuclearization.

The re-establishment of inter-Korean dialogue, for the time being, opens communication lines with a self-isolated North Korea that has no other reliable channels of communication in crisis with the outside world. But whether this opening can be exploited to promote peace and security beyond the term of the Olympic Games themselves -- by forestalling and reversing the resumption of a trajectory toward conflict between the U.S. and North Korea punctuated by the resumption of U.S.-South Korean military exercises and resumption of North Korean missile tests -- remains to be seen.

Scott Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers."

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