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The challenge of turning inter-Korean thaw into longer-term detente

From Reuters - January 10, 2018

SEOUL (Reuters) - A day of smiles and jokes at the first inter-Korean talks in two years quickly evaporated Tuesday night when the Norths chief negotiator threatened to walk out after the South Korean side brought up Pyongyangs nuclear and missile programmes.

We had started in a good spirit but this came to an icky mood, North Koreas lead delegate Ri Son Gwon complained in closing remarks.

His rebuke highlights the challenges that lie ahead for Seoul after the 11 hours of talks yielded agreements to hold military talks and facilitate North Koreas participation in next months Winter Olympics in South Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in attained his immediate goal of getting North Korea to participate in the games - and reducing the chance its leader Kim Jong Un would disrupt the event with another missile or nuclear test. But turning the winter thaw into a longer-term detente will be far more daunting.

To do so, Moon must navigate a volatile mix of mutually exclusive policies, including North Koreas stance that its nuclear arsenal is non-negotiable and Washingtons equally strident insistence that complete denuclearisation is the only acceptable outcome.

Seoul has proposed that the two Koreas make a show of unity by marching together at the Pyeongchang Olympics. The last time they did that was in January 2007 at the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, just three months after North Korea conducted its first nuclear test.

The first U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang followed that nuclear test and over the next 12 years, international sanctions ramped up along with North Koreas increasingly sophisticated missile and nuclear tests, a cycle that has left Pyongyang increasingly isolated. Along the way, six-country talks aimed at dismantling North Koreas nuclear programme became moribund.

Participation in the Olympics would help ease the Norths isolation. And Pyongyang may hope South Korea could resume desperately needed economic aid at some point. Moon, after all, was once an advocate of former president Kim Dae Jungs sunshine policy of reconciliation with the North.

LARGER ISSUES

Ri said he would not discuss North Koreas nuclear weapons programme with the South because its nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) are aimed thoroughly at the United States, not at its brethren in the South.

Seoul believes improved inter-Korean ties and a series of steps agreed on Tuesday could pave the way for discussion of a fundamental resolution of the nuclear issue in the future, the Souths unification ministry said on Wednesday.

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