North and South Korea are suddenly on a fast track to direct bilateral talks without the United States or China — an unexpected development at a moment of heightened tensions that intelligence sources say is being driven by several factors, including Pyongyang’s desire to sidestep Trump administration-backed sanctions.
A day after President Trump bluntly warned the North about the U.S. military’s ability to respond with overwhelming force to any nuclear attack from Pyongyang, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reopened a direct cross-border communication channel with South Korea for the first time in nearly two years Wednesday, as the rivals explored the possibility of direct talks and diplomatic overtures after months of acrimony and fears of war.
Mr. Kim’s offer, which was read by a senior Pyongyang official on state TV, followed a South Korean offer on Tuesday of high-level talks with North Korea to find ways to cooperate on next month’s Winter Olympics in the South, among other issues, The Associated Press reported.
Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the state-run Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, said Mr. Kim has ordered regime officials to promptly take substantial measures with South Korea out of a “sincere stand and honest attitude,” according to the North’s state TV and news agency.
“This is almost revolutionary coming out of North Korea, given the invective that normally comes from there,” said Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, a former intelligence official who served as U.S. special envoy to multilateral talks on North Korea before they broke down in 2009.
Although Mr. DeTrani said in an interview that pain from international sanctions likely motivated Pyongyang’s sudden offer to engage in talks, some are more skeptical. They say North Korea’s Mr. Kim could still be planning to shock the world with nuclear or missile tests next month when South Korea hosts the Winter Olympics in the town of Pyeongchang.
On Wednesday, North Korean officials reopened a hotline to South Korea which connects the two countries across its Demilitarized Zone, the world’s most heavily guarded border. The move comes roughly two years after Mr. Kim ordered it closed. On Wednesday afternoon, South Korean officials confirmed that they had received a call from the North.
On Tuesday, South Korean officials also agreed to meet next week and suggested that they gather in the border village of Panmunjom in the DMZ. If the two sides do talk on Tuesday as proposed — one day after Mr. Kim’s 34th birthday — then the direct dialogue will be the first since a December 2015 vice ministerial meeting.
The proposed talks do not include any allies, leading some to speculate that Pyongyang is attempting to divide Seoul and Washington in the face of growing concerns in the South about Mr. Trump’s sharp rhetoric. South Korean President Moon Jae-in won election last spring in part on a platform seeking to thaw relations with the North after a lengthy period of hostility.
Since coming to office, Mr. Trump has more vocally countered the North’s regular threats to destroy America, in addition to pushing for tighter economic sanctions to thwart Pyongyang’s missile development program. His Twitter threat Tuesday was a sharp response to Mr. Kim’s boast a day earlier that he now had a button on his desk to launch the North’s first nuclear missiles.
“Will someone from [Mr. Kim’s] depleted and food-starved regime please inform him that I too have a nuclear button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my button works!” Mr. Trump wrote.
Instead of worrying about Mr. Trump’s tweets, “I think the people of this country should be concerned about the mental fitness of the leader of North Korea,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Wednesday.
Mr. Kim “has made repeated threats,” she said. “He’s tested missiles time and time again for years, and this is a president who is not going cower down and is not going to be weak.”
But results of the more aggressive U.S. approach have been mixed. In November, North Korea tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile yet and claimed it could land a nuclear warhead anywhere in the U.S.
But there also appear to be growing concerns in the North that even stronger sanctions recently approved by the U.N. Security Council could wreak serious havoc on the country’s already fragile economy. Last month, North Korea officials called the sanctions “tantamount to a blockade.”
The sanctions also have become a major concern of officials in Beijing, the North’s largest ally. A recently leaked internal Chinese Communist Party document detailed a secret plan to prop up Mr. Kim with increased aid and military support, including new missiles, provided that Pyongyang halts further nuclear tests.
Beijing has long worried about the collapse of the Kim regime and is working to bolster its economy, analysts say.
“The isolation that North Korea is enduring right now is serious,” Mr. DeTrani said. “There is a lot of pain, and these sanctions are causing leadership a lot of grief. They are saying to themselves, ‘How do we adjust for this?’”
Scott Snyder, director of U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that Mr. Kim’s proposed talks also exclude China, widely seen as the North’s only significant ally and economic lifeline.
“It is really striking that there is not a word devoted to China,” he said. He added that the North’s objectives feel “much more tactical than strategic,” which could stem from desperation.
Whatever its private reaction, the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Wednesday said it welcomed the prospect that the Olympic Games could be used as a vehicle to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing has chafed at Mr. Trump’s repeated demands to crack down on Pyongyang, fearing a collapse of the Kim regime could spark a massive refugee crisis and create a strong unified U.S. ally right on its border.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also welcomed the direct North-South talks, saying through a spokesman that he hoped it would contribute to a denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
The South Korean government wants to delay joint U.S., South Korean military exercises scheduled to coincide with the Winter Olympics until later. Last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the U.S. has no plans to delay the maneuvers. Pyongyang, however, wants to delay the exercises until after Sept. 9 — the holiday that commemorates North Korea’s founding.
Mr. Snyder said Mr. Kim could then tout a propaganda victory that Pyongyang successfully stalled U.S. military maneuvers until after the holiday.
So far, only two athletes from the North have qualified for the Olympic Games, but getting them into the competition would allow the North additional bragging rights if they perform well.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
• Dan Boylan can be reached at email@example.com.
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