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Two Koreas to hold high-level talks on Jan. 9

South Korea and North Korea agreed Friday to hold their first high-level talks in more than two years next week to discuss Pyongyang’s potential participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, hours after Seoul and Washington decided to delay joint military exercises until after the Games.

The Unification Ministry said that North Korea informed the South at 10:16 a.m. through a faxed massage that it has accepted Seoul’s offer to hold talks next Tuesday on the South Korean side in the truce village of Panmunjeom.

“The main agenda items will be issues related to improving inter-Korean ties including (the North’s participation in) the PyeongChang Olympics,” Baik Tae-hyun, spokesperson for the Unification Ministry, told a press briefing. “We agreed to discuss details regarding the talks through the exchange of documents.”

Baik Tae-hyun speaks at the press briefing on Jan. 5, 2017. (Yonhap)
Baik Tae-hyun speaks at the press briefing on Jan. 5, 2017. (Yonhap)
The presidential office said that the priority for now is getting North Korea to participate in the Games.

“Once North Korea’s participation in the Olympics is finalized, I believe there will be further discussions on improving inter-Korean ties,” a high-ranking official from Cheong Wa Dae told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The North’s response came after President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump agreed late Thursday to postpone the ROK-US joint military drills until after the Winter Olympics. The exercises have been a major source of tension as North Korea views them as war rehearsal, although South Korea and the US have said the drills are defensive in nature.

In his New Year’s Day address, Kim called on South Korea and the US to halt the joint military drills and Washington’s regular deployment of strategic assets around the Korean Peninsula. His remarks were largely viewed as preconditions for talks.

There have been growing signs of a thaw in inter-Korean relations since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered to send a delegation to the Olympics to be held here next month and re-engage in inter-Korean dialogue in the speech.

In response, Seoul proposed Tuesday to hold a high-level meeting, which will be the first high-level cross-border dialogue since December 2015. A day later, the North resumed a cross-border hotline after a nearly two-year suspension.

The two Koreas are expected to hammer out details of North Korean delegation‘s participation over the weekend, such as travel routes, costs, and whether the two Koreas would march together under a unified Korean flag at the opening and closing ceremonies in the Winter Games to be held from Feb. 9-25.

The Unification Ministry said that it had the final phone call for the day with the North and agreed to work as usual and keep the hotline open over the weekend.

It is not yet clear who will be attending. The faxed message was sent in the name of Ri Son-gwon, chief of the North‘s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. The recipient was South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon.

Asked whether financially supporting the North Korean delegation could be in violation of international sanctions against North Korea, the Unification Ministry spokesman said that the government will “not cause such controversy.”

He also said that the government will keep pace with the international community in its efforts to restore inter-Korean relations and denuclearize North Korea, and closely communicate with partner countries including the US in pushing for the talks.

The Foreign Ministry said Friday that top nuclear envoys of South Korea and Japan -- Lee Do-hoon, the special representative for Korean Peninsula peace and security affairs, and his Japanese counterpart Kenji Kanasugi -- plan to meet to discuss North Korea nuclear issue on Monday, a day before the scheduled inter-Korean talks.

Lee also met with his Chinese counterpart Kong Xuanyou on Friday afternoon in Seoul to discuss the North Korea nuclear issue. The Chinese assistant foreign minister, who is on a two-day visit here, said that some “positive” things are unfolding in regard to the situation on the Korean Peninsula at the meeting.

As for the joint drills, South Korean and US defense authorities have set a schedule for this year’s Key Resolve combined exercise for April 23-May 3, Yonhap News Agency reported, citing an anonymous source. The allies are still in consultations on a timetable for the Foal Eagle field training, according to the news reports.

In 2017, Key Resolve took place from March 13-24 and Foal Eagle from March 1-April 30. If the drills were held according to the usual timeline, they could have coincided with the Paralympic Games slated for March 9-18 in PyeongChang.

In a departure from a decade of hard-line policy towards North Korea under the conservative administrations, the Moon administration has pursued a dual track of engagement and sanctions to resolve the North Korea issue since coming to power in May last year.

Moon has sought to use the Winter Games as a “groundbreaking chance” to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula that have been heightened by a series of North Korean nuclear and missile tests and months of escalating rhetoric between North Korea and the US. 

By Ock Hyun-ju (