Will inter-Korea thaw open way for direct talks between US and North Korea?

US President Donald Trump in his car after being grounded due to weather concerns from an attempt to visit the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea via helicopter from Seoul on Nov 8, 2017.
US President Donald Trump in his car after being grounded due to weather concerns from an attempt to visit the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea via helicopter from Seoul on Nov 8, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - With US President Donald Trump expressing his willingness to talk directly with North Korea over its nuclear programme, expectations are high whether the resumption of inter-Korea dialogue would open the way for direct talks between Washington and Pyongyang.

In a shift in tone from his bellicose rhetoric, Mr Trump said he is open to speaking one on one with North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un and supports South Korea's efforts to reengage North Korea by seeking its participation in the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

"I always believe in talking," Mr Trump said during a news conference at Camp David on Saturday (Jan 6).

"If something can happen and something can come out of those talks, that would be a great thing for all of humanity. That would be a great thing for the world."

Asked if there are strings attached to the bilateral talk - the Trump administration demanded complete denuclearisation as a prerequisite for talks - Mr Trump said Mr Kim knows that he is "not messing around" in his pledge to defend the US and its allies from the North's military attacks.

The remark came after the two Koreas agreed to discuss cooperation on the games as well as other issues in their first high-level meetings since 2015. The talks are set to begin on Tuesday (Jan 9) in the truce village of Panmunjeom.

While Mr Trump can be serious about direct talks with Mr Kim as he is eager to build political achievement prior to the US' mid-term election in November, the prospect for talks would hinge on the two countries' tug-of-war over the pre-conditions for talks to take place, an analyst said.

The Trump administration has insisted there can be no bilateral talks without a sign that North Korea will abandon its nuclear arsenal. However, Pyongyang has shown no sign of abating in its relentless pursuit of advances in its nuclear and missile programme.

"Trump has to show tangible accomplishment on North Korea's nuclear programme no later than July or August. If it goes towards dialogue, not a war, it couldn't be better for Trump," said Kim Yeol Su, senior researcher at the Korea Institute for Military Affairs.

The prospect of direct talks ultimately rests on how serious North Korea is about denuclearisation efforts, Kim said, noting that the dialogue is possible if North Korea accepts the allies' decision to reschedule the joint military drills as a condition for talks.

South Korea and the US decided to postpone their annual military exercise Key Resolve and Foul Eagle until after the Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games, which are to be held from Feb 9-25 and from March 9-18, respectively.

The White House said that South Korean President Moon Jae In and Mr Trump agreed to "de-conflict" the Olympics and the military exercise so that the allies "can focus on ensuring the security of the Games".

The statement avoided saying that the exercise was postponed.

In his New Year's address, Mr Kim Jong Un showed his willingness to send a North Korean delegate to the Olympics though he urged South Korea to stop its nuclear war drill with foreign nations and withdraw itself from any invasion attempt on North Korea.

"If North Korea is serious about denuclearisation talks, they should accept (the decision to delay the exercise) as meeting one of its conditions for talks and refrain from asking for complete suspension of joint military drills. Then, we could see the likelihood of direct talks (between US and North Korea)," said Kim Yeol Su.