Just days after President Donald Trump mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “nuclear button” and flaunted the size and efficacy of his own nuclear fleet, the two countries have made strides toward peace.
With little more than a month before the start of South Korea’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, North Korea has reopened communications with Seoul and expressed interest in mending relations.
In the same New Year’s Day address in which Kim touted his willingness to engage in nuclear war, he “earnestly” wished for South Korea’s games to succeed and said it was a “good opportunity to show unity of the people.”
Now talks over sending a delegation of North Korean athletes to the games are scheduled to take place between Pyongyang and Seoul.
The U.S. and South Korea have also announced they will pause their military exercises not just through the end of the games in late February but reportedly all the way through the Paralympics, set to end in mid-March.
As a result, the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea may have just scheduled an unprecedented 2 1/2 months of markedly lowered tensions.
North Korea hates the U.S. and South Korea’s military exercises, which regularly feature huge numbers of troops and advanced weapons systems. Lately, the drills and development of new weapons systems have increasingly focused on taking out Kim.
North Korea often intentionally times missile launches to coincide with the drills.
North Korea, China, and Russia all support the “freeze for freeze” path to negotiations, wherein the U.S. and South Korea suspend the military drills in exchange for North Korea halting missile and nuclear tests.
The U.S. has always rejected this strategy on the grounds that North Korea’s missile tests are illegal and the military drills are not. But the Winter Olympics have opened a window of opportunity for diplomacy.
But is it a trap?
North Korea has made overtures of peace to South Korea before. In fact, Andrea Berger, a senior researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, pointed out on Twitter that Pyongyang had a history of extending olive branches after periods of tension.
“2017 painted the extremely worrying security backdrop that everyone is desperate to move away from,” Berger wrote. “The DPRK will test each South Korean administration, pushing to see how far doors will open.”
“But, it is worth remembering that most January windows of opportunity for North-South progress get smashed fairly quickly,” Berger wrote — North Korea’s peace overtures normally occur in January.
Even as North Korea prepares for its highest-level talks with South Korea in years, reports have surfaced that it’s planning to test a missile or at least a rocket engine.
Additionally, a lull in activity may tempt South Korea to side with China, Russia, and ultimately Pyongyang, rejecting the U.S.’s calls for total denuclearization and holding out for talks until strict preconditions have been met.
But for now, the U.S. and South Korea are set to go months without provoking North Korea with military exercises. It will be up to North Korea, which has backed out of peace talks before, to demonstrate its commitment to de-escalation.