North and South Korea are starting to talk to each other again, but experts are skeptical of North Korea’s motives

A South Korean soldier stands guard on the space that separates the two Koreas January 3, 2002 at the border village of the Panmunjom, north of Seoul, South Korea.

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A South Korean soldier stands guard on the space that separates the two Koreas January 3, 2002 at the border village of the Panmunjom, north of Seoul, South Korea.
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Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

  • This week marked major developments in communications between North and South Korea, as the two countries plan to meet for the first time in two years.
  • Many hope the talks will help both sides resolve their differences.
  • Still, experts are skeptical about the possibility of any meaningful, long-term impact.

This week marked major developments in relations between North and South Korea, and many are hopeful that it means peace and cooperation are on the horizon in the Korean Peninsula.

In his first state address of 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced he was open to dialogue with South Korea, and urged easing military tensions on the Korean Peninsula, even as he issued new threats to the US.

On Tuesday, a North Korean official said on state television that the country would reopen its direct communications hotline with South Korea, and eagerly planned to discuss sending a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics games in Pyeongchang.

Following Kim’s proposal, South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon told reporters that the government welcome talks with the North “regardless of time, location, and form.” South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in jumped at the opportunity, and proposed conducting talks on the peninsula next week.

On Wednesday, South Korean officials called North Korea from their communications headquarters and spoke for the first time in two years. The two sides spoke for about 20 minutes before the North disabled the line.

The US and South Korea on Thursday agreed to delay joint military exercises until after the Olympics.

And in a major sign of progress on Friday, North Korea sent a message accepting the South Korean offer, and plans for both sides to meet at the border village of Panmunjom next Tuesday are in place.

Lee Eun-Ju of South Korea (R) takes a selfie picture with Hong Un Jong of North Korea at the 2016 Rio Olympics gymnastics training.

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Lee Eun-Ju of South Korea (R) takes a selfie picture with Hong Un Jong of North Korea at the 2016 Rio Olympics gymnastics training.
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Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Bringing peace to the peninsula

Experts say this week’s developments are significant for both countries in the short-term, but doubt that increased communication will help bring long-term reconciliation.

Director of the Nautilus Policy Institute, Peter Hayes, told Business Insider that reopened communications between indicate a strategic policy shift on North Korea’s part.

“It indicates Kim Jong Un plans an interregnum in testing of missiles and warheads,” Hayes explained, adding that Kim understands any military provocations at this time would interrupt a potential breakthrough moment for North and South ties.

By pausing its weapons testing and opening itself up, at least rhetorically, to South Korea, Kim hopes to cast himself as a rational broker in its war of words with the US President Trump and other US officials, who have characterized Kim as unstable.

“If it goes well, it will also put the Trump Administration on the back foot in terms of child-like war talk and sending mixed messages to Pyongyang,” said Hayes.

Dr. Go Myong-Hyun, Research Fellow at The ASAN Institute for Policy Studies said Kim’s willingness for dialogue is a temporary plan built out of desperation: “North Korea is engaging in a tactical move with South Korea for two main reasons: to avoid a preemptive attack from the US, and to mitigate crippling sanctions imposed on the country by the US.”

“North Korea would love to see a growing gap between US and South Korea, but its really a byproduct of North Korean goals rather than its objective,” Go added.

According to Lindsay Ford, Director of Political-Security Affairs at the Asia Society Policy Institute, the South’s preparations for the Olympics provide North Korea with the perfect opening to achieve its objectives.

“North Korea sees a moment of opportunity given South Korea’s clear interest into wanting to have a positive and peaceful Olympics, and will leverage that moment for tactical gains to ease pressure of sanctions.”

Ford said she, too, is skeptical about whether the North’s overtures are strong enough to pave the way for peace.

“Both sides have shown interest in taking temperature down right now. The question is, will it last beyond this immediate moment? It’s not clear if the fundamental interests of both sides have changed enough that you’ll see any enduring improvement.”