Last year, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un played the role of successful nuclear provocateur, ignoring international pressure to cease developing weapons and missile capability that sparked alarm around the world.
Now it seems that Kim, a third-generation dictator, wants a new persona: statesman.
The young leader’s conciliatory words this week about the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea have set off an unexpected flurry of diplomatic activity that could improve inter-Korean relations, which have grown more sour in recent years.
The latest development came Friday when the North agreed to attend “high-level” talks on Tuesday at a diplomatic building in the Demilitarized Zone, the buffer region that separates the two parties to an uneasy truce that ended the Korean War.
The meeting, if it occurs as planned, would be the first between the Koreas since 2015. It would be a breakthrough made possible by a confluence of circumstances, including Kim’s apparent desire to participate in the Games — but also South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s eagerness to show progress toward reconciliation.
Still, both sides are proceeding cautiously.
After opening a communications hotline on Wednesday that’s been dormant for nearly two years, the North accepted the South’s offer to discuss a role in the Olympics, which begin Feb. 9 and run through Feb. 25.
The two nations are expected to exchange documents to set practical terms for the meeting, to be held inside the truce village known as Panmunjom, about 30 miles north of Seoul along the border between the two countries. It’s the same location where several North Korean troops shot a fellow soldier as he defected across the DMZ to the South in November.
President Moon, a liberal who ended a decade of conservative leadership with his election in May, on Friday sought to allay skepticism among older, conservative South Koreans about the North’s conciliatory gestures.
Previous liberal presidents have sought to improve relations with the totalitarian nation, pursuing a “sunshine policy” that involved increased political contact and economic relations. Despite those efforts, the North continued to provoke tensions and pursue its nuclear program.
“I will not just naively push for dialogue as in the past,” Moon told a group of senior citizens at the presidential complex on Friday, according to his spokesman. “I will also seek to establish peace while pushing for dialogue based on strong defensive capabilities.”
The talks aren’t expected to include security issues, but rather focus first on the particulars of any North Korean participation in Pyeongchang, a ski village serving as the base for the Games. Two North Korean figure skaters have qualified to compete, but it’s unclear whether their country will send a delegation to Pyeongchang.
Improvements to inter-Korean relations, which were severed in February 2016 after the closing of a joint economic zone in Kaesong, North Korea, could also be on the agenda if the talks progress.
The planned meeting has received the initial blessing of the Trump administration, which agreed to postpone annual joint military exercises with the South, known as Foal Eagle, until after the Olympics. The military drills typically anger the North, which sees them as preparations for a northward invasion, though U.S. officials say the exercises are defensive.
The diplomatic breakthrough became possible after Kim used his annual New Year’s Day speech to make conciliatory comments about the two nations, playing on nationalist themes of unification and reconciliation.
Kim has made similar comments during major speeches before, but perhaps not to this extent. This year is also different because of the Olympics, which Kim said he hoped would be successful — a statement that eased concerns across the world that the North might attempt to disrupt the event.
Kim indicated a willingness to send a delegation to the Games. The South quickly responded, offering to discuss the details for hosting the team. North Korea didn’t participate in the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. It last earned a Winter Olympics medal in 1992, in speed skating.
North Korea watchers said Kim’s overtures this year were notable, while also expressing skepticism about whether the talks would be productive or otherwise affect the nations’ largely frozen relations.
“The optimistic view is that certainly South Korea and North Korea are looking for a way to move back down the escalation ladder,” said David Kang, an international relations professor and director of USC’s Korean Studies Institute. “The pessimistic view is Kim is just going to pull the rug out in a month or two.”
Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, said South Korea should tread carefully in the talks and keep the focus on the North’s involvement in the Olympics.
“We won’t know about Pyongyang’s participation for sure until the Games begin, and anything can happen along the way,” she said. “Observers and skeptics will be zeroing in on any secret or disclosed deals in exchange for Pyongyang’s participation.”
These talks, of course, won’t end any conflict between the North or its adversaries, most notably the United States. In the same speech, Kim boasted that the “entire United States” was within range of his nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
But better relations with South Korea, a key United States ally that hosts more than 28,000 American troops, could open a path to wider diplomacy to help address the nuclear crisis the North’s advancement has caused in the last year.
Conversely, the North could also use the talks to try to halt or end the annual military drills. It also might be seeking to rebrand itself not as a rogue state, but as a peace-loving country seeking a nuclear defense capability.
Stiles is a special correspondent.