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However Small, North Korea's Olympics Talks Are a Victory

From TIME - January 8, 2018

In North Korea, the Supreme Leaders New Years speech is his most important annual political statement, one that is endlessly parsed for hints at the secretive Stalinist states policy priorities for the next 12 months. As 2018 dawned, a bespectacled Kim Jong Un, wearing a light gray suit, stood at a wooden podium to tell his 25 million countrymen the entire continent of America is within reach of a nuclear attack following his regimes latest missile and nuclear tests. Washington, he warned, should never forget the nuclear button is placed on my desk at all times.

But Kim also adopted a conciliatory tone, declaring his wish for peaceful resolution with our southern border, and offering talks over sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February. On Tuesday, those talks will take place at the DMZ that has divided the peninsula since the 1950-3 Korean War. They will be the first direct inter-Korea discussions since the spring of 2016, when then South Korean President Park Geun-hye severed communications in response to Pyongyangs fourth nuclear test.

Despite their limited remitsolely North Koreas participation in Pyeongchangthat the talks are taking place at all is heartening after a 2017 of customary threats and antagonism from Pyongyang, and unprecedented vitriol from the White House. U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened Kim with fire and fury, derided him as little rocket man, and only last week boasted that his own nuclear button was much bigger and more powerful. Despite in October calling talks a waste of time, Trump on Jan. 4 described them as a good thing, and, in true Trumpian fashion, even took credit for their fruition.

The real play here is ultimately seeing whether Seoul provides an opening point for the North Koreans to have some sort of talks with the Americans bilaterally, Prof. Stephan Haggard, a Korea expert at the U.C. San Diego School of Global Policy.

That the talks are taking place now is largely to the credit of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the son of refugees from the North, who was elected on promises to restart measured reengagement with the Kim regime without giving it a free ride. But his entreaties to come to the negotiating table were repeatedly batted away by Kim until now. So why the change?

Read more: The Negotiator: TIMEs Exclusive Interview With Moon Jae-in

It could be because of the two new rounds of U.N. sanctions, which ChinaNorth Koreas neighbor and economic umbilical cordhas been enforcing comparatively stringently. There are signs that these have started to bite the regime. However, one thing North Korea can do is withstand external economic pressure, says John Delury, an East Asia expert at Seouls Yonsei University. So Id be cautious about doing a victory lap and saying the sanctions are working.

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