TOKYO — Two people were at the center of inter-Korean talks that began Tuesday, but they were not even inside “Peace House” on the southern side of the border between the two countries. They are Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, the North Korean figure skating duo who, South Korea desperately hopes, will compete in the Winter Olympics next month.
Representatives from the two Koreas sat down at Panmunjom, the “truce village” in the middle of the Demilitarized Zone, at 10 a.m. Seoul time on Tuesday for their first talks in more than two years.
Last time, in the summer of 2015, they were trying to broker a peace after North Korean land mines severely injured two South Korean soldiers, sparking a back-and-forth that raised fears of war.
Now they will be talking about whether the North will send Ryom and Kim to the 2018 Olympics starting Feb. 9 in PyeongChang, just 40 miles south of the line that separates the two Koreas.
Plenty of officials in Seoul hope that the talks Tuesday will mark the beginning of a warmer chapter between the estranged Koreas — and maybe even an opening to denuclearization negotiations.
“The two sides will focus on the Olympics,” Cho Myoung-gyon, South Korea’s unification minister and its chief delegate to the talks, said Monday. But, he added, “when discussing inter-Korean relations, the government will seek to raise the issue of war-torn families and ways to ease military tensions.”
This could start with Ryom, who will turn 19 the week before the Games open, and Kim, 25. The pair trained in Montreal under Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte last summer and competed in Germany and Finland last year. For one performance, they even skated to an instrumental version of the Beatles song “A Day in the Life.”
They qualified to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics, but North Korea missed the Oct. 30 deadline to register them. Both the International Olympic Committee and South Korean authorities, however, have made clear that a remedy could be found.
The IOC has repeatedly said it wants the North Korean athletes to take part and has been providing equipment and help with travel to increase the chances of making this happen.
The signs are looking auspicious. North Korea’s IOC representative, Chang Ung, told reporters in Beijing over the weekend on his way to Switzerland that the pair would “probably participate” in the Games.
North Korea boycotted the Summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988 — and in fact blew up a South Korean airliner, killing all 115 on board, at the end of 1987 to try to deter people from attending the Games. But it has sent athletes to more recent meets, including sporting events held in 2002 and 2003, during a period of warmer inter-Korean relations, and again in 2014.
Parlaying an ice skating performance into a broader diplomatic thaw, however, will be a challenge the size of the iceberg that sank the Titanic.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who turned 34 on Monday, has taken great pride in his nuclear and missile progress over the past year. He has proved impervious to U.S. and international sanctions, even as he has admitted that they are having an impact on North Korea’s economy.
But now, he might see an opening to cause a different kind of trouble — by driving a wedge between Seoul, where the government wants to change North Korea’s ways through engagement, and Washington, where President Trump urges “maximum pressure.”
Kim’s New Year’s Day address was notable for its conciliatory tone toward South Korea, wishing it well for the Winter Olympics and calling for the two Koreas to work together.
“The South Korean authorities should respond positively to our sincere efforts for a detente,” Kim said.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency made it clearer that “outsiders” — read the United States — have no place in their discussions.
“As the inter-Korean relations are, to all intents and purposes, an internal matter of the Korean nation, dependence on the outsiders will make matters more complicated,” the agency said Monday.
For its part, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s government is bending over backward to make the Olympics — which it has dubbed the “peace games” — a success and to open a new era of engagement with the North.
The South Korean government is reportedly prepared to pick up the bill for the North Korean team’s accommodation at the Games, with the Unification Ministry bluntly dismissing any concerns that this may violate international sanctions.
And Seoul scored a remarkable victory in persuading the United States to postpone the huge joint military drills that start at the beginning of March each year to avoid antagonizing North Korea. They have been postponed until after the Paralympics finish on March 18.
Moon, an early proponent of the “sunshine policy” of engagement, has repeatedly expressed hope that the Olympics could provide a nonpolitical route to better relations with the North.
But he would be prudent to keep his expectations low, said Duyeon Kim, a fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, a Seoul think tank. Too many times, Pyongyang has gotten what it wanted and kept its nuclear weapons, too.
“North Korea is always trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington,” Kim said. “That’s been their MO since the regime was founded.”
Whether Tuesday’s talks lead to anything beyond the skaters’ participation in the Olympics is up to the North Korean leader.
“Kim Jong Un said he wants to improve inter-Korean relations, so he now has to prove it with actions,” Kim said.
But South Korean conservatives are painting the Moon government as naive in thinking North Korea might be persuaded to change its ways.
“Moon has talked about being ‘in the driver’s seat’ in inter-Korean affairs. But it seems obvious who is leading whom by the nose,” the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest newspaper and an influential conservative voice, wrote in a sharply worded editorial.
Kim has no intention of giving up his nuclear program, the paper said. “All he wants is to buy time so he can complete his nuclear arms development, and his strategy is to sow a rift among the allies.”