On January 9, North Korea agreed to send a large delegation to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea, to be held between February 9-25. The agreement was reached during talks between officials at a face-to-face meeting along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries. The meeting was organized following North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day address, during which he expressed a desire to send athletes to the games and the need for bilateral relations without outside actors.
On January 4, the US and South Korea agreed to delay joint military exercises until the conclusion of the Olympics. South Korean President Moon Jae-in reportedly discussed the agreement directly with US President Donald Trump over the phone on the same day. In the lead-up to the talks, President Trump posted on social media that “talks are a good thing!”, and credited his approach of hardline sanctions as the impetus behind North Korea’s conciliation. President Moon thanked President Trump during a press conference following the border talks. He also stated that he would be open to talks with Kim Jong Un under certain unspecified preconditions. President Trump echoed the same willingness during an interview on January 6.
The North and South also agreed to hold further military talks during their initial meeting, although officials have stated that at least in the opening rounds of such future talks, the meetings would focus on logistical issues related to bringing a large North Korean delegation over the heavily militarized border. Reports indicate that the North Korean negotiator emphatically rejected a suggestion that they also engage with the US or discuss their weapons program.
North Korea has faced a number of sanctions regimes championed by the Trump administration as recently as December 22, in response to the November 29 test of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15.
Decrease in tensions likely to persist until end of 2018 Olympics
The in-person talks of January 9 were the first to occur in over two years, and mark the first such occurrence during the administration of President Trump. In general, despite threats of violence by North Korean leadership largely going unfulfilled, diplomatic overtures from Pyongyang normally result in periodic lulls in tension and varying levels of progress in peninsular cooperation. Given the positive results of the initial meeting and the temporary fulfillment of the North Korean desire for a halt to US-led military drills, all sides appear to be sincere in their commitment to maintaining a drawdown until at least the close of the Olympics.
FORECAST: The developments of January 9 are likely to result a period of relative ease between North and South Korea until at least the closing ceremonies of the Olympics on February 25.
Significant concessions from either side unlikely in near term, North Korea on course to attain nuclear-capable ICBM by end of 2018
Both countries have varying goals that are essentially at odds with one another’s, and as such, there remains a low likelihood that the current thaw will see Pyongyang abandoning their nuclear ambitions. Despite the initial overtures by Kim Jong Un, he emphasized his commitment to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a deterrent in the same speech where he offered to resume bilateral talks, and there are no indications of any substantive consideration of alterations to this plan as a result of the ongoing talks.
FORECAST: Given North Korea’s continued commitment to their nuclear program, previous assessments regarding their completion of a nuclear ICBM by the end of 2018 remain unchanged.
While there have been no tests following the November 29 Hwasong-15 launch, this may have more to due with technical considerations. Now that North Korea has a viable launch mechanism, the focus has turned to creating a working reentry vehicle and navigation system. The need to meet these milestones has likely created a delay between tests, and North Korea may be taking advantage of the lull in order to present itself as a more stable partner. Moreover, the motivation for participating in the Olympics may be an attempt to gain acceptance as a presumed nuclear state and normalize their possession of a nuclear arsenal on the world stage.
Similarly, the US-South Korean commitment to halt joint exercises does not cover the annual Foal Eagle or Key Resolve exercises slated to take place in April, and there have been no indications that the schedule will be altered in any way. This suggests that despite positive steps from all sides, red lines nonetheless remain that are likely to be crossed in upcoming months.
North Korean emphasis on bilateral talks unlikely to exclude US from reconciliation process
Kim Jong Un referred to the harmful influence of the US at least 13 times in his speech and emphasized the explicit need for bilateral relations at least another four times. By all accounts, North Korea is likely attempting to use bilateral relations as a way to minimize the role of the US in any eventual substantive talks outside of Olympic preparations, and their rejection of the US during the January 9 talks further reflects this desire. However, the likelihood of exclusive, bilateral peace talks between South Korea and North Korea at the expense of US involvement remains unlikely. South Korea depends on US military commitments for protection from North Korea, and would not be liable to abandon such a partnership, especially considering the North’s nuclear capabilities.
That said, bilateral talks over the coming days and weeks are likely to exclude the US, although as previously mentioned, do not appear to cover substantive reconciliation or demilitarization. Such bilateral talks on issues of economic and cultural cooperation have historically excluded the US, however, have had no impact on the South’s insistence on the inclusion of Washington for more strategic issues. As such, North Korea may be laying the groundwork for an excuse to resume nuclear tests, blaming any increase in tensions on South Korea’s unwillingness to be more flexible on the US presence in their country.
Travel to Seoul may continue at this time, while adhering to standard security protocols regarding protests, crime and the lingering risk of conflict with North Korea.
We continue to advise against nonessential travel to Pyongyang and North Korea given the risk of detainment of foreign travelers.
Those planning on traveling to South Korea for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are advised to contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary-based consultation and contingency planning