Seoul – Much-anticipated high-level talks between the two Koreas are set to begin, with each side sending delegations to the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone (DMZ).
The talks on Tuesday are expected to focus on the participation of North Korean athletes in the upcoming Winter Olympics and Paralympics in the South Korean city of PyeongChang next month, while also aiming to improve inter-Korean ties, which have hit their lowest point in decades.
The two sides are expected to discuss how North Korea’s sports delegation will travel to South Korea, where the athletes and coaches will stay, how South Korea will guarantee their safety and who will pay their travel expenses, amid concerns that financial assistance from the South to cash-strapped North Korea could violate sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council.
An overwhelming majority (77 percent) of South Koreans are in favour of North Korea’s participation, yet the public is split on whether South Korea should assist with expenses, with 54 percent saying yes and 41 percent saying no, according to recent polls by Realmeter.
It also remains to be seen whether the two sides will agree to enter the opening and closing ceremonies together, possibly under a flag depicting the Korean Peninsula rather than their national flags, or to form a single united team for certain sports.
South Korea has been struggling to promote its first Olympics in 30 years, after North Korea’s attempt to sabotage the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics by detonating a Korean Air flight over the Andaman Sea, killing 115 people on board.
Security concerns among foreign athletes and visitors over North Korea’s repeated missile launches and nuclear tests have also cast a shadow over preparations for what is expected to be the coldest Winter Olympics opening ceremony in two decades.
The speed with which the talks between the two Koreas have been arranged, after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made an overture to South Korea in his New Year’s Day address, indicates an eagerness for progress on both sides of the border.
A day after Kim’s speech, South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myung-gyon proposed high-level talks for January 9. The next day, Ri Son-gwon, North Korea’s point man on inter-Korean affairs, announced on state television that Pyongyang would restore the Panmunjom border hotline to facilitate dialogue.
These positive developments have prompted speculation in Seoul about what other issues the two Koreas may discuss, such as the reunion of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War and security issues.
In an apparent bid to manage the public’s expectations, South Korean President Moon Jae-in noted: “We should refrain from making premature judgment or expectation yet.”
While South Korea’s liberal government sees this as a long-awaited window of opportunity to open lines of communication and eventually persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear programme, others have cautioned that North Korea’s ulterior motive behind this “peace offensive” could be to buy time.
“A majority seems to believe North Korea is trying to finalise technological development to achieve operational ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles],” BJ Kim, an adjunct professor at the Hankook University of Foreign Studies, told Al Jazeera.
Another expert suggested that North Korea may have realised the value of South Korea as an alternative source of financial relief amid the effectiveness of global economic sanctions.
“There is a possibility that South Korea is willing to extend economic assistance, especially for humanitarian purposes,” Bong Young-shik, a research fellow at the Yonsei University Institute for North Korean Studies, told Al Jazeera.
In September, South Korea approved a plan to offer $8m in humanitarian aid to North Korea via the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme. Amid continuing tensions, it has not been paid.
“South Korea has to walk a tightrope because if South Korea offers too many economic benefits, South Korea will be departing from international coordination to put maximum pressure and sanctions on North Korea,” Bong said.
Chronology of previous inter-Korean talks
1971: Hotlines are installed at the truce village of Panmunjom ahead of Red Cross talks
1972: The two Koreas agree on the July 4 Joint Communique, outlining the future direction of cooperation
2000: The two Koreas hold the first inter-Korean summit
2000-2007: Several high-level meetings take place annually, involving the prime ministers, ministers, military and Red Cross
2007: The two Koreas hold the second inter-Korean summit
2008: Inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation cool after a South Korean tourist is shot dead by a North Korean security guard at the Mount Kumgang resort and a conservative president comes into power in South Korea
2014: North Korea sends senior officials to the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea
August 2015: After a landmine attack and exchange of fire at the border, top negotiators from the two Koreas hold talks at Panmunjom in an effort to defuse tensions and reach a six-point agreement
December 2015: Talks fail to reach an agreement; Seoul’s top priority is resolving the issue of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War, while North Korea focuses on pressing South Korea to reopen the tour programme halted since 2008
February 2016: North Korea severs communications channels at the border