Inter-Korean Talks Are More Than Just a "Good Thing"

Why the U.S. Should Offer a Stronger Show of Support for Dialogue in the Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during a New Year's Day speech in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang on January 1, 2018. KCNA via Reuters

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un celebrated New Year’s Day with his annual national address, confidently asserting that the nuclear button on his desk was now a “reality, not [a] threat,” and that the United States could no longer intimidate him or his country. Kim’s remarks prompted President Donald Trump to do just that, tweeting that his nuclear “button” was bigger and better than Kim’s.

Lost amidst the initial flurry of attention that Trump’s juvenile insult garnered, however, was the true significance of Kim’s speech: for the first time since South Korean leader Moon Jae-in took office last May, Kim has made a credible offer to open up the relationship with Seoul. Kim wished the South a successful Winter Olympics, suggested North Korea could somehow participate, and proposed immediate talks to discuss the Games and ways to “defuse military tension” on the Peninsula.

Skeptics have pointed out that Kim includes in his speech every year some kind of friendly feint toward the South. But the Olympics proposal was remarkable for two reasons: first, Kim chose a concrete deliverable, which is coming up soon—signaling a readiness to act; second, the Olympics is Moon’s agenda, not Kim’s. To faraway observers, the Olympics gambit may have seemed like a ploy invented by Kim. In fact, Kim’s overture was a response to Moon’s efforts.  

Amidst the fire and fury of missile tests and testy tweets, the Moon administration has been hard at work over the past few months creating the opening which we are now seeing bear fruit. Moon repeatedly stressed the significance of the Olympics as a way to scale back rising tensions with Pyongyang. In a sit-down with CNN’s Paula Hancock in September, Moon described his “audacious plan” for using the “Peace Olympics” to make a breakthrough with the North. When Trump visited Seoul in November and reportedly asked Moon, “What can I do for Korea?”, the South Korean leader replied that

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