Ri Son-kwon, the head of the North Korean delegation that met with South Korean negotiators on Tuesday, wanted his counterparts to know that it’s been an unusually cold winter in the North. So cold, he told them, that rivers and mountains are frozen.
“But it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that inter-Korean relations have been frozen more than the cold weather,” he said in a rhetorical flourish. “However, regardless of how cold it is, the people’s hope for the improvement of the relations between the North and the South is like the water flowing under the frozen rivers.”
It didn’t take long for signs of a much-needed thaw to emerge from the meeting held in the border village of Panmunjom. The biggest breakthrough, the North’s decision to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics, was announced before noon. The day ended with the reopening of a military hotline between the two countries, an agreement to hold talks on easing military tensions – and an offer from the South to resume reunions for families caught on either side of the border, separated now for almost 70 years.
After months of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the immediate outcomes of Tuesday's talks may seem starkly inadequate in comparison to the enormous challenge posed by the North’s rapidly advancing nuclear and missile programs. In the past year, Pyongyang has test-launched a series of ballistic missiles and conducted its sixth nuclear test, which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb; leader Kim Jong-un declared the program complete in his New Year's address.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has warned that North Korea would face harsher sanctions if it resumes weapons tests. But for now, he appears to be focused on incremental, unity-building moves – like the symbolically powerful reunions – to lay the foundation for better ties and tougher discussions.
“We must seek to realize the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue while improving inter-Korean relations,” he said during a news conference in Seoul on Wednesday. “These two issues cannot be separated.”
'The timing is perfect'
The significance of North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics, and in any future family reunions, is largely symbolic. South Korea hopes that the talks in Panmunjom will lead to broader negotiations, involving the United States, about how to end the North’s nuclear program. On Wednesday, Mr. Moon said he was willing to meet Mr. Kim under certain conditions to resolve the nuclear standoff.
Such a meeting, if one were to occur, is months if not years away. The North has so far ignored the South’s pleas to discuss the nuclear issue, warning that raising it could derail efforts to improve inter-Korean relations.
A more likely next step would be for the two sides to resume temporary family reunions for relatives in the North and South who have not seen each other since they were separated during the Korean War. For more than six decades, hundreds of thousands of family members have been forbidden to exchange letters, phone calls, or emails, much less meet. More than 60 percent of those in South Korea are now in their 80s or older. Time is not on their side.
Divided-family reunions have been a standard feature of negotiations between South and North Korea for decades. They’re a relatively low-hanging fruit loaded with symbolism about cooperation, forgiveness, and unity, says Scott Snyder, a senior fellow in Korean Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
“They can always go to [family reunions] when there is nothing else really available,” Mr. Snyder says. “Both sides recognize family reunions as a way to send a signal about the desire for a better relationship.”
The reunions of war-torn families are highly emotional affairs and are often viewed as an indicator of relations between the North and South. The last ones were held in 2015 at a mountain resort in southeastern North Korea. Hundreds of elderly Koreans from each country were allowed to meet their spouses, children, and parents on the other side of the border for three days in tightly-regimented, emotional events.
An estimated 18,800 Koreans have been allowed to participate in 19 face-to-face reunions since 1985, when the first ones were held. Of the more than 131,000 South Koreans who have registered for the gatherings over the last three decades, 72,300 have passed away and 59,000 are still waiting for their chance to attend.
South Korean officials suggested during the meeting on Tuesday that the two Koreas hold talks on the possibility of organizing a new round of reunions, but the North has yet to respond. Mr. Moon made a similar request during a speech he delivered in Germany last July.
“This is a very emotionally appealing issue to South Koreans, especially among conservatives who are skeptical of the Moon Jae-in administration,” says Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at the Institute for North Korean Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. “It’s a humanitarian issue that fits nicely with Moon’s overarching slogan that people should come first.”
With the Lunar New Year only five weeks away, Dr. Bong says, “the timing is perfect.” The beginning of the new year is a traditional time for family gatherings in Korea. That it also happens to fall in the middle of the Olympics only adds to its significance.
Despite all of this, observers question whether North Korea will agree to allow family reunions without demanding some sort of concession in return. Jenny Town, assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, says the North is less interested in the reunions themselves than in what comes after them. Will South Korea lift some economic sanctions? Will the US and South Korea scale back or halt their joint military drills?
Tensions over North Korea's nuclear program may be high, but in its seeming bid for a thaw, many experts see a well-worn pattern they say is unlikely to produce lasting breakthroughs. Pyongyang has previous turned up pressure, then reached out for talks and concessions in apparent detentes that later looked like bids for time.
Moreover, some analysts see Kim’s offer of talks with Seoul as an attempt to hinder cooperation between South Korea and the United States, as Washington leads the push for firm global sanctions against his regime. While Moon has championed dialogue with the North, US President Trump has threatened military action – and Kim used the same New Year's speech in which he extended an olive branch south to Seoul to remind Washington of the “nuclear button” in his office.
The White House initially appeared lukewarm at the prospect of Tuesday's talks. Then, last Thursday, it announced that it had agreed with Seoul to delay joint military exercises until after the Olympics.
“I think President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks, I want to show my gratitude,” Moon said on Wednesday.
For now, however, South Korea is waiting for agreement on the reunions.
“There's a lot of skepticism about what it leads to,” Ms. Town says, referring to such an agreement. “But in and of itself, it's always a positive measure.”
While that is undoubtedly true for the families involved, convincing North Korea is another matter. If Kim decides that the Olympics, family reunions, or any other conciliatory gesture won’t lead to his ultimate goal – that is, being accepted as a nuclear power – he may again fall back on ratcheting up his weapons program.
“Once you get over the easy issues, where do the two sides go from there?” asks Town. “That is where you're really going to start to see a much tougher discussion and more ambiguity in what can be achieved and what each side is really willing to do.”