SEOUL, South Korea — It’s been more than a decade since the leaders of the two Koreas have held a summit. Could it happen now?
South Korean President Moon Jae-in told reporters Wednesday that he remains open to a meeting with North Korea’s leader, if it would improve the strained relations between their two countries and help resolve the global standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons development.
It’s not a new position for Moon, who took office in May, but it took on new meaning coming one day after high-level officials from the two Koreas held a rare and apparently successful meeting, agreeing on the North’s participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics in the South.
A meeting between the two leaders isn’t likely in the immediate future. The North’s Kim Jong Un hasn’t met any foreign leader since he succeeded his father in 2011, and attitudes have hardened since the only two previous Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, when South Korean presidents were pursuing a “Sunshine Policy” of trying to win over the North through engagement and aid.
Moon is a liberal who favors a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue and whose election ended nine years of hard-line conservative rule. He was chief-of-staff to former President Roh Moo-hyun, who held the last summit with Kim’s father in 2007.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Dongguk University in Seoul, said a meeting during Moon’s five-year term is possible.
“Kim has never met any foreign leader, so it would be meaningful for him to make his first summit a meeting between Koreans,” Koh said.
During the televised news conference in Seoul, Moon said “I keep myself open to any meeting including a summit,” and that he would push for further talks and cooperation after Tuesday’s meeting.
“To have a summit, some conditions must be established,” he said. “I think a certain level of success must be guaranteed.” He didn’t set any specific conditions.
Moon called North Korea’s participation in next month’s Olympics “very desirable,” but said inter-Korean relations cannot be improved without progress on the nuclear issue. He warned that the North would face harsher international sanctions and pressure if it resorts to new provocations, adding that “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the path to peace and our goal.”
Under the deal struck Tuesday at the border village of Panmunjom, North Korea will send officials, athletes, cheerleaders, journalists and others to the Olympics in Pyeongchang, a mountainous county near the border. South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said Wednesday he expects the delegation will include 400 to 500 people. The accord stipulates the two Koreas will actively cooperate in the Olympics to “enhance the prestige of the Korean people.”
The two sides also agreed to hold military talks, and North Korea said it had recently restored a military hotline with the South, the second reopening of an inter-Korean communication channel in about a week, according to South Korean officials. All major communications had been shut down because of the tensions over the North’s nuclear program.
The accords, reached at the first meeting between the rival Koreas in about two years, were widely viewed as a positive step following a year of escalating tension over Kim’s rapidly advancing nuclear and missile programs. Last year, Kim and President Donald Trump exchanged bellicose rhetoric and crude insults as North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test and three tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles that put the U.S. within its range.
Trump contended that his tough stance had helped persuade the North to sit down with the South, and Moon said during Wednesday’s news conference that he feels thankful to the U.S. president for helping make the talks happen.
Some warn that tensions could quickly flare again as the North still wants to expand its weapons arsenal. They also say Kim may be pushing for better ties with South Korea because North Korea is feeling the pain of U.S.-led international sanctions.
The countries have a long history of failing to follow through with rapprochement accords. In 2015, negotiators met for nearly 40 hours before announcing a deal to pull back from a military standoff caused by land mine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers. But animosities flared again several months later after the North Korea’s fourth nuclear test.
John Delury, a China and North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, cautioned that the process is fragile, but said Tuesday’s talks are opening up new diplomatic possibilities, in striking contrast to last year.
“It’s still very early in this process, and we have to see how much momentum it acquires, but so far this year is definitely getting off to a very different start,” he said. “You have to knock on the door to see if it will open.”
Two earlier liberal presidents, Roh and his predecessor Kim Dae-jung, met with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. But the conservative governments that followed them took a tougher line.
The presidency of conservative Lee Myung-bak, from 2008 to 2013, was marked by animosity, including North Korean attacks on a warship and a border island that together killed 50 South Koreans in 2010. His successor, Park Geun-hye, indefinitely suspended South Korean participation in a joint industrial park in North Korea’s Kaesong city in February 2016, the last remaining major symbol of cooperation between the two.