By HYUNG-JIN KIM
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The rival Koreas took steps toward reducing their bitter animosity during rare talks Tuesday, as North Korea agreed to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea and reopen a military hotline.
The meeting, the first of its kind in about two years, was arranged after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an abrupt push for improved ties with South Korea following a year of elevated tensions with the outside world over his expanding nuclear and missile programs. Critics say Kim may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington in a bid to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North.
During the talks, the North Korean delegation said it would send an Olympic delegation, including officials, athletes, cheerleaders, journalists and others, South Korean Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung told reporters, according to media footage from the border village of Panmunjom, the venue of the talks.
North Korea is weak in winter sports and a pair of figure skaters, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, earlier became the only North Korean athletes to qualify for next month’s Pyeongchang Games before the North missed a confirmation deadline. The International Olympic Committee said Monday it has “kept the door open” for North Korea to take part in the games.
Chun, one of five South Korean negotiators, said the South proposed that North Korea send a big delegation and march with South Korean athletes during the Feb. 9-25 games’ opening and closing ceremonies.
He said South Korea also suggested resuming temporary reunions of families separated by war and offered military talks designed to reduce animosities in front-line areas. South Korea also stressed the need to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Chun said.
North Korea responded by saying the two Koreas must try to promote peace and reconciliation through dialogue, he said.
The two sides’ chief delegates were meeting Tuesday evening to discuss the wording of a joint statement, the media reports said, but it wasn’t immediately known when the talks would end. Past inter-Korean talks have often continued until late at night.
The countries have a long history of failing to follow through with rapprochement accords. In 2015, negotiators met for nearly 40 hours before announcing a deal to pull back from a military standoff caused by land mine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers. But animosities flared again several months later after the North’s fourth nuclear test.
The meeting’s venue, Panmunjom, is the only place on the tense border where North and South Korean soldiers are just meters (feet) away from each other. A North Korean soldier in November defected to the South across Panmunjom amid a hail of bullets fired by his comrades. He was hit five times but survived.
Tuesday’s meeting began in an amicable atmosphere, with chief North Korean delegate Ri Son Gwon saying he hoped the talks would give “a New Year’s first gift — precious results to the Korean nation.” Ri’s South Korean counterpart, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, said he also hoped they would come up with a “good gift” for people in both Koreas.
Later Tuesday, Chun said North Korea told the South Korean delegation that it restored a military hotline with the South, in the second reopening of a suspended inter-Korean communication channel in about a week.
All major inter-Korean communication channels had been shut down amid animosities over the North’s nuclear program in recent years. But North Korea reopened one of the channels last week as signs emerged of improving ties.
An agreement on the North’s Olympic participation had been widely expected before the talks began, but the Koreas remain sharply at odds over how to improve their overall ties.
North Korea is expected to demand rewards in return for South Korea’s proposal of family reunions and military talks, such as a halt to South Korean propaganda broadcasts and a scaling back or halting of military drills with the U.S., observers say.
Suspension of the military drills would be unacceptable for Seoul because it would seriously undermine its alliance with its chief ally, the United States, which wants to put more pressure on North Korea. The North views the drills as a rehearsal for an invasion.
During an earlier era of inter-Korean detente, athletes from the two Koreas paraded together at international sports events such as the Olympics and fielded a unified Korean team. The government of current South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants the two Koreas to agree to similar reconciliatory steps at the Pyeongchang Games.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday expressed hope for some progress from the talks and said he was open to talking with Kim himself. But U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley later said the U.S. administration isn’t changing its conditions regarding talks with North Korea, saying Kim first needs to stop weapons testing for a “significant amount of time.”
In his New Year’s Day address, Kim said he was willing to send a delegation to the Pyeongchang Games. He urged Seoul to halt the military drills with the U.S. and said he has a “nuclear button” to launch missiles at any target in the United States. Moon welcomed Kim’s outreach and proposed the talks at Panmunjom.
Trump and Kim traded bellicose rhetoric and crude insults last year, as North Korea conducted it sixth and most powerful nuclear detonation and three tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles.