February 14, 2018 6:36 am JST

North Korea keeps up Olympic 'smile diplomacy'

Pyongyang hopes to get South to delay or cancel joint drills with US

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei staff writer

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un meets members of the high-level delegation that visited South Korea for the Winter Olympics in this undated photo released by the country's Korean Central News Agency. © KCNA/Reuters

SEOUL -- North Korea seems intent on maintaining its improved relations with the South, raising speculation that it may halt its military provocations in a bid to prevent planned joint exercises by U.S. and South Korean forces.

Kim Jong Un, North Korea's autocrat, met Monday with the delegation that returned from the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, according to Tuesday's report by the official Korean Central News Agency. The delegation included his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, who has become a symbol of the North's "smile diplomacy."

After praising the trip's results, Kim Jong Un stressed the importance of continuing progress, according to KCNA, expressing a rare willingness to repair relations with South Korea. He also ordered his subordinates to foster a climate of reconciliation and dialogue, the report said.

Pyongyang is expected to promote active engagement with Seoul through all channels, including reciprocal visits and other exchanges.

Kim may have been pushed to warm up to Seoul by the looming U.S.-South maneuvers, due to begin in April. The drills will include a simulated "decapitation strike" to eliminate the North Korean leadership.

The delegation's briefing Monday also included a detailed account of activities by American officials at the Winter Olympics. Sticking with the hard line the White House maintains against the isolated state, Vice President Mike Pence made a point of avoiding contact with North Korean figures during his stay.

If the U.S. and South Korea conduct the exercises on schedule, Kim will be forced to respond in some way to save face. That would reignite tensions in the peninsula, threatening the conciliatory course between the Koreas that started with Kim's New Year address on Jan. 1.

The leader noted how South Korea "prioritized" the participation of North Koreans in the Winter Olympics, as well as the "sincere efforts" made by the South to accommodate the guests, according to KCNA. He reportedly praised the treatment granted his delegation by South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and offered an unusual expression of gratitude.

During his New Year speech, Kim declared that North Korea has perfected the "state nuclear force." He also mentioned his government's economic goals, which he is being pressured to realize.

For that to happen, Kim needs international sanctions to soften. He has settled on inter-Korean relations as a pathway to start achieving that objective.

A planned post-games visit to Pyongyang by Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, will play a major role to that end. The North's aim is to cast the two Koreas as peace-seeking nations in the eyes of the international community, in contrast with the "bellicose" U.S. under President Donald Trump.

The prospect of North Korea refraining from missile or nuclear tests during dialogue with the South is reasonable on both a logical and practical level, the Choson Sinbo wrote in a piece published Monday. The Tokyo-based newspaper is the official mouthpiece of the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, a group allied with Pyongyang.

Diplomatic and military observers believe those words suggest North Korea may soon commit to halting provocations without waiting to speak with the American side, which the hermit state previously deemed as its sole negotiating partner. This would put the ball in Washington's court.

Meanwhile, the U.S. still plans to hold joint military exercises around April after the Olympics wrap up. But as long as the North is throwing these curveballs, Moon could try to push Washington to further delay the drills, as well as reduce the scope in hopes of opening a line of dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea.

The South Korean military remains tight-lipped on whether the joint drills will proceed as planned. The timeline is still being discussed by Washington and Seoul, Choi Hyun-soo, spokeswoman for the South Korean Defense Ministry, said Tuesday. "The schedule will be revealed at an appropriate time," she added.

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