An agreement for North Korea to send athletes to the Winter Olympics in the South signals a step change in relations, analysts say, but will do little to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities.
The North and South on Tuesday held their first official dialogue in more than two years, agreeing that Pyongyang would send a large delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics and promising further high-level talks.
The meeting came after months of confrontation over North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests, with both parties seeking to dial down tensions.
“Both sides wanted to win and they got it,” said John Delury, a professor at Seoul’s Yonsei University.
Seoul and Olympic organisers have been keen for Pyongyang — which boycotted the 1988 Summer Games in South Korea’s capital — to take part in what they have repeatedly proclaimed as a “peace Olympics” in Pyeongchang.
But the North gave no sign it would do so until leader Kim Jong-Un’s New Year speech. It pursued its banned weapons programmes in defiance of United Nations sanctions, launched missiles it says are capable of reaching the US, and staged its sixth and most powerful nuclear test.
North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games is a tacit guarantee that it will refrain from such provocations during February and March, when the Olympics and Paralympics are held.
Seoul and Washington also agreed earlier to delay their annual joint military drills — which Pyongyang views as rehearsals for an invasion — until after the events.
Go Myong-Hyun, an analyst at the Seoul-based Asan Institute of Policy Studies, said North Korea secured so-called “strategic composure” — shelter from a possible US military strike which has repeatedly been described as an “option on the table” by Trump administration officials.
“Washington can’t take any military action against the North during inter-Korean talks because it doesn’t want to be blamed for any hiccups,” Go said.
But what happens when the lights are turned off at Pyeongchang and geopolitics returns to normal on the peninsula?
“Whether this opening can be exploited to promote peace and security beyond the term of the Olympics games themselves… remains to be seen,” wrote Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations.