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

ON both sides of the divided Korean Peninsula, the timing seems right.

The New Year’s Day proposal by North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, for talks with South Korea came as sanctions appear to be biting, with reports of shortages in the North and pressure by Washington to intercept ships smuggling fuel.

The initiative was embraced by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who sees his chance to carry out his campaign agenda of engaging with the North, while also easing tensions as Trump’s warlike threats have rattled his country. South Korea said talks with the North would be held tomorrow.

In a telephone message delivered through the restored cross-border hotline on Friday, North Korea accepted the South’s proposal that the two sides begin talks, South Korean officials said. The talks, to be held in the border village Panmunjom, will be the first high-level inter-Korean dialogue in two years.

But if this is an opening for a thaw, it is a small one. Scepticism abounds not only in Washington, but also among South Koreans.

Many in the country are mindful of how the so-called sunshine policy of two previous leaders, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, failed to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. As Moon learned from his predecessors’ experiences, any South Korean leader accused of risking the alliance with Washington in trying to improve ties with the North could become a lightning rod of conservative ire.

“If there are those who think they can solve the North Korean nuclear problem and problems between the South and North through dialogue, they must be crazy,” said Yoo Dong-ryul, a right-wing director of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Liberal Democracy.

While most South Koreans today favour dialogue and peaceful accommodation with North Korea, many fear that hastily engaging and granting the North economic concessions would throw a lifeline to Kim just as sanctions are squeezing his government.

In his New Year’s Day speech, Kim offered to send an Olympic delegation to the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month. But, he also boasted that his country was now a nuclear power capable of thwarting a United States-led war on the peninsula, and he urged the South to abandon Washington’s campaign for sanctions and to work with “fellow countrymen” for peace — an opening Moon seized on.

“The Pyeongchang Olympics and the Paralympics there will become a clarion of peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said last Wednesday.

South Koreans have grown increasingly nervous over the past year about Kim’s nuclear brinkmanship. But, they have also begun questioning the implications of their alliance with a Washington led by an often unpredictable Trump, who has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea.

Moon insists that dialogue has become more urgent than ever because the South would bear the brunt of any war on the peninsula. South Korean officials say that the next several months may be the only opportunity to use negotiations to halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme before it acquires a functional intercontinental ballistic missile.

While many South Koreans support a peaceful resolution to the tensions, many also question Moon’s approach — and Kim’s sincerity.

Analysts say Kim’s strategy is to make his nuclear weapons a fait accompli, while seeking a way to weaken the choking sanctions.

“In 2018, North Korea will likely launch an aggressive dialogue and peace offence and use the improvement of ties with the South to head off the sanctions and pressure,” the South’s government-run Korea Institute for National Unification said in an analysis of Kim’s New Year’s speech.

“It is using the Pyeongchang Olympics to start implementing its approach.”

In his New Year’s speech, Kim acknowledged that his country faced “the harshest-ever challenges” because of the sanctions. And the Olympics offered an opening.

“Kim Jong-un knew that South Korea was desperate for the North to join the Pyeongchang Olympics and resume inter-Korean dialogue,” Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator, said in a Facebook post.

“Recognising the South’s weakness, he is using it to undermine the South’s alliance with Washington, drawing it away from the US and using it as a shield against possible American military action.”

On Thursday, Trump wrote on Twitter that his tough approach was working, saying that it brought North Korea to the negotiating table.

Analysts say the North views its participation in the Olympic Games as a favour to Moon, and would most likely demand major concessions from Seoul.

Signalling his demands, Kim urged South Korea to stop annual joint military exercises with the US. North Korea is likely to demand that the South reopen a joint factory park in the North Korean town of Kaesong that the South shut down in 2016. It could insist that South Korea lift a trade embargo it imposed in 2010 while accusing the North of torpedoing a South Korean navy ship.

Lifting such sanctions without clear North Korean movement towards denuclearisation would open a crack in the US-led international campaign to pressure the North and cause a fissure in the alliance between Seoul and Washington. It would prove unpopular in South Korea, especially among its older and conservative population, whose emotions over the ship’s sinking remain raw. The South is set to hold elections for mayors and governors in June.

North Korea has already signalled that tough negotiations loom. NYT

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