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(News Focus) Cautious optimism grows over inter-Korean ties, nuclear deadlock

All News 18:38 January 05, 2018

SEOUL, Jan. 5 (Yonhap) -- The two Koreas' agreement to hold high-level talks next week, coupled with Seoul and Washington's decision to delay their annual joint military exercises, raised hopes for reduced tensions and possible progress in efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear standoff, officials and analysts here said Friday.

The two Koreas struck an agreement Friday to hold a high-level dialogue next Tuesday on their border to discuss the North's possible participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February.

The first government talks between them in more than two years comes on the heels of increased tensions surrounding North Korea's advancing nuclear weapons system.

Even while stepping up sanctions on North Korea, the new Moon Jae-in administration has relentlessly searched for a chance for talks with North Korea and has repeatedly invited the North to the Olympics.

In a surprise response, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced in his New Year's address that the regime is interested in participating in the event and in discussing this with Seoul. One day later, Seoul formally suggested a high-level dialogue with North Korea.

The Friday agreement between Seoul and Pyongyang followed another boon to inter-Korean relations: On Thursday, Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed over the phone to delay their militaries' annual joint exercises until after the Winter Olympics.

Officials and analysts welcomed the new moves as having the potential to break the ice after the U.S. and North Korea's exchange of bellicose threats last year sparked fears of an American military attack on the North.

"For now, inter-Korean discussion remains within the boundary of the issue of North Korea's participation in the PyeongChang Olympics. ... (But eventually) we believe inter-Korean talks could contribute to fomenting the mood for talks between the U.S. and North Korea," a high-ranking presidential official said.

Both Seoul and Pyongyang agreed that their talks slated for Tuesday could go beyond Olympics affairs and deal directly with matters concerning bilateral relations.

"If the issue of North Korea's moratorium on nuclear and missile tests is brought up at the upcoming inter-Korean talks and North Korea's participation in the Olympics is followed by an actual absence of (weapons test) provocations, that could automatically satisfy the U.S. precondition for talks with North Korea," Park Won-gon, professor at Handong Global University, said.

He was referring to the Trump administration's previous stance that it could sit for talks with the North if the regime halts its military weapons tests for 60 days.

"It will be our government's best scenario to ... bring (Pyongyang) to North-U.S. talks," the professor said. He said the U.S. may also be able to take advantage of the scenario because without any action, the North would be on a undisturbed course to secure the ability to deploy nuclear-tipped missiles capable of striking the U.S. this year.

Trump also threw his support behind the upcoming talks between Seoul and Pyongyang, tweeting on Thursday that "talks are a good thing!"

The delay of joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises would also create a window of opportunity to fulfill the freeze-for-freeze option proposed by China, Cho Sung-ryul, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, said.

China and progressive scholars in South Korea and the U.S. proposed as a condition for U.S.-North Korea talks that the North impose a moratorium on tests of nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles and South Korea and the U.S. suspend their annual joint military exercises, which the North denounces as a rehearsal for war on its regime.

"It is very positive. The delay would make it possible (for the three countries) to fulfill the freeze-for-freeze without impairing the South Korea-U.S. alliance," the researcher noted.

But other experts also sounded the alarm over a picture that appears too rosy, saying that any setback in the joint military exercises could only embolden North Korea and that further provocations by Pyongyang cannot be entirely ruled out.

As hopes are growing for a possible thaw in the North Korean nuclear deadlock, the chief negotiators of the long-dormant six-party talks to denuclearize North Korea have also accelerated their consultations. On Friday, Lee Do-hoon, South Korea's chief negotiator on the North Korean nuclear issue, held talks with his Chinese counterpart Kong Xuanyou in Seoul to discuss the security situation on the Korean Peninsula. Lee is also scheduled to meet with his Japanese counterpart Kenji Kanasugi on Monday in Seoul.

pbr@yna.co.kr
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