Will Kim Yo-jong's olive branch to Seoul herald Winter Olympics peace talks?

Analysts say there is the possibility of talks between the four countries taking place in Beijing during the Games.
PHOTO: Reuters file

North Korea is floating a trial balloon to see if it can resume dialogue with the United States through South Korea, analysts say, with inter-Korean reconciliation talks and a summit also involving China potentially happening as soon as the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

They based their assessment on comments made on Saturday (Sept 25) by Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, when she made clear her support for a formal end to the Korean war and a fresh inter-Korean summit if Seoul treated Pyongyang with "impartiality" and mutual respect.

She made the statement a day after she praised South Korean President Moon Jae-in 's recent call for a declaration of an end to the 1950-53 conflict - technically ongoing, as the fighting ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty - as an "admirable idea", and said Pyongyang was also willing to discuss mending fences with Seoul.

Moon had earlier suggested the two Koreas - along with the US, which supported the South, and China, which backed the North - get together and declare an end to the conflict, possibly at the Beijing Winter Olympics, which will be held from Feb 4-20 next year.

However, Kim said such a declaration would be conditional upon the South abandoning "hostile policies" and "double-dealing standards" against the North, which analysts saw as ambiguous conditions that could be puzzling to Seoul.

For instance, it remained unclear whether the North was playing for time to build up its nuclear arsenal and wait out economic difficulties worsened by the global pandemic, or if it was preparing the ground to improve relations with the South, said Professor Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies.

Yang said Pyongyang could be "seeking to give a boon to Beijing's efforts to stage a successful Olympics by giving it a chance for a political stunt there - a summit of leaders of the four countries, including the two Koreas, the US and China".

"If US President Joe Biden cannot come to Beijing, the vice-president could do so," he said.

But North Korea has been barred from taking part in the Winter Olympics by the International Olympic Committee after Pyongyang skipped this year's Tokyo Games over fears its athletes might contract Covid-19.

Shin Beom-chul of the Research Institute for Economy and Society in Seoul said even if North Korea was unable to participate as a country, North Korean athletes might take part, and there was the possibility of an inter-Korean summit taking place in Beijing during the Games.

China is North Korea's largest economic partner and one of its few allies. Beijing's foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian last week said at a regular press conference that China supported declaring a formal end to the Korean war as an "important party to the Korean peninsula issue".

Cheong Seong-chang, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute, said he believed "China wants the two Koreas to hold a summit on the sidelines of the Beijing Olympics and move toward reconciliation and co-operation".

On Monday, Moon's top spokesman Park Soo-hyun welcomed Kim's statements, but with a note of caution.

"On one track, we have the issue of improving inter-Korean ties, and on the other track, there starkly exists the issue of denuclearisation and US-North Korea relations. But these two tracks are closely linked to each other," he said on a local radio news programme.

PHOTO: Reuters file

"We are not rushing to realise an inter-Korean summit for the improvement of inter-Korean ties. We are cautiously and thoroughly looking into what would happen to relations between the North and the United States as well."

Park Soo-hyun's comments reflect Seoul's recognition that Washington is likely to have a lukewarm reaction to a four-way meeting on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics, as well as a declaration of an end to the Korean war.

Professor Park Won-gon of Ewha Womans University's North Korea department said the recent spate of statements from Pyongyang reflected that it was gravitating towards acceptance of Moon's offer, but Washington would consider the announcement of a formal end to the war "premature".

"The US believes an end-of-war declaration should be used as a card to push the North to move toward denuclearisation," he said.

The South Korean president, though, is looking to make progress on reunification before his term ends next year.

PHOTO: Reuters file

Last week, he said the Korean war declaration could serve as an opener to negotiations on replacing the armistice with a peace treaty, and that it should proceed alongside diplomatic discussions over the denuclearisation of the North.

Moon added that this would not alter the legal status of the 28,500 US troops stationed in the country, or undermine Seoul's alliance with Washington.

If Moon's offer came to fruition and leaders of the four countries sat down together, said Park from Ewha Womans University, it would provide the North with a chance to demand the easing of US-led sanctions imposed on it over its nuclear programmes, as well as the removal of its name from Washington's list of terror-sponsoring states.

Rubbing shoulders with the leaders of the two superpowers and the South would help Kim Jong-un score political points in the eyes of the world, Park said. "It would also serve as a publicity stunt for local audiences, as Pyongyang would tell its people that the war is over and the North won."

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The North had purposefully made its conditions ambiguous, he pointed out, as this left it with "a lot of room to arbitrarily decide whether the South complies with them" and then "cut ties again at its whim".

"The first test will be to see whether the North would come to the table with the South for substantive talks," Park said.

Ultimately, he added, "the North has found this is a game where it has nothing to lose no matter how it ends".

Choi Kang, vice-president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said the North was engaging in a "charm offensive" as part of its long-standing efforts to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea.

"What the North wants is that future negotiations with the US should be premised on Washington accepting it as a nuclear-armed state," Choi said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.