SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reopened a key cross-border communication channel with South Korea for the first time in nearly two years Wednesday as the rivals explored the possibility of sitting down and talking after months of acrimony and fears of war.
The sudden signs of easing hostilities, however, came as President Donald Trump threatened Kim with nuclear war in response to his threat earlier this week.
In his New Year's address Monday, Kim said he was willing to send a delegation to next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea. But he also said he has a "nuclear button" on his desk and that all U.S. territory is within striking distance of his nuclear weapons, comments Trump latched onto Tuesday when he boasted of a bigger and more powerful "nuclear button" than Kim's.
The two leaders exchanged crude insults last year, as the North received new U.N. sanctions over its sixth and most powerful nuclear test explosion and a series of intercontinental ballistic missile launches.
The recent softening of contact between the rival Koreas may show a shared interest in improved ties, but there's no guarantee tensions will ease. There have been repeated attempts in recent years by the rivals to talk, but even when they do meet, the efforts often end in recriminations and stalemate.
Outside critics say Kim may be trying to use better ties with South Korea as a way to weaken the alliance between Washington and Seoul as the North grapples with toughened international sanctions over its nuclear and missile programs.
Kim's latest announcement, 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 and discuss other inter-Korean issues.
Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the state-run Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, cited Kim as welcoming South Korea's overture and ordering officials to reopen a communication channel at the border village of Panmunjom. Ri also quoted Kim as ordering 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.
South Korea quickly welcomed Kim's decision and later confirmed that the two Koreas began preliminary contacts on the channel. During their 20-minute communication, liaison officials of the two Koreas exchanged their names and examined their communication lines to make sure they were working, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.
Since taking office last May, South Korea's liberal President Moon Jae-in has pushed hard to improve ties and resume stalled cooperation projects with North Korea. Pyongyang had not responded to his outreach until Kim's New Year's address.
Relations between the Koreas soured under Moon's conservative predecessors, who responded to the North's expanding nuclear program with hard-line measures. All major rapprochement projects were put on hold one by one, and the Panmunjom communication channel had been suspended since February 2016.
Moon has joined U.S.-led international efforts to apply more pressure and sanctions on North Korea, but he still favors dialogue as a way to resolve the nuclear standoff. The Trump administration says all options are on the table, including military measures against the North. Moon has repeatedly said he opposes any war on the Korean Peninsula.
Some observers believe these differences in views may have led Kim to think he could drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington as a way to weaken their alliance and international sanctions.
Talks could provide a temporary thaw in strained inter-Korean ties, but conservative critics worry that they may only earn the North time to perfect its nuclear weapons.
After the Olympics, inter-Korean ties could become frosty again because the North has made it clear it has no intention of accepting international calls for nuclear disarmament and instead wants to bolster its weapons arsenal in the face of what it considers increasing U.S. threats, analysts say.
Q&A: Is there a chance for a breakthrough with the Koreas?
By FOSTER KLUG , Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — After one of the most fraught years on the Korean Peninsula in recent memory — threats of war amid North Korea's strongest-ever nuclear bomb test and repeated missile launches — an unexpected, very tentative interest in peace seems to have broken out.
In rapid succession: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un floats the idea in a New Year's speech of better ties with his southern rival. Maybe, he says, he'll even send a delegation to next month's Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Seoul quickly offers to meet and talk. And on Wednesday, the North announces that Kim views the South's offer positively and the two sides begin preliminary contact on a newly reopened cross-border communication channel.
Is it an elaborate ruse by the North? Wishful thinking in the South?
Some answers to questions about what it may all mean:
Q: How likely is it that the two sides will actually meet?
A: There's a pretty good chance, though meeting is the easy part.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has favored better ties with North Korea for years, and he campaigned on pledges to take a softer line than his conservative predecessors.
Moon was a top aide for a previous liberal president who maintained a so-called "Sunshine Policy" toward Pyongyang, with large amounts of aid shipped to the North and the two sides pursuing cooperative tourism and business programs.
Although Moon, who took office in May, has been pushed into a hard-line stance by the North's repeated missile and nuclear tests, he would clearly like dialogue.
The North's Kim, on the other hand, has shown little interest in pursuing peace since taking power in late 2011. That said, he has made repeated suggestions about improving ties in past New Year's speeches. Skeptics will point out that he mixed his peace overtures with threats of war and has conducted weapons tests within weeks of past speeches.
There's also suspicion that Kim will use any talks as cover to continue perfecting an arsenal of nukes that can reliably hit the U.S. mainland, and that his overture is mainly meant to disrupt ties between Seoul and Washington so he can weaken international pressure and sanctions.
Q: Why is it so difficult for the Koreas to make peace once they sit down and talk to each other?
A: Seven decades of simmering animosity and bloodshed is the short answer.
The Koreas were divided in 1945 at the end of World War II into a U.S.-controlled southern side and a Soviet-controlled north. Three years later, the division became formal with the founding of the opposing republics. Two years after that, the North launched a surprise invasion and the Koreas fought, with the help of the United States, the United Nations and China, one of the bloodiest wars of the 20th century.
Since then, there has been steady bloodshed, though mostly from the North, including assassinations, kidnappings and, in 2010, attacks blamed on North Korea that killed 50 South Koreans.
When the history is this bloody, and the two sides are squared off across the most heavily armed border in the world, every detail is usually contested.
Q: Even if they meet, is there any chance for a breakthrough?
A: Any time the Koreas talk it's a victory of sorts, especially after the misery of last year.
Still, the rivals have done this dance many times before, and their talks don't have the best track record when it comes to results, often blowing up before anything really gets done.
If there are talks, the first round will likely be lower-level discussions meant to set up a higher-level meeting. Previous such talks have bogged down on matters of protocol, for instance, with one side objecting to the "rank" of a proposed participant.
If a next round is decided upon, the actual negotiations of what to do about Olympic cooperation would begin. But with decades of accrued animosity between them, nothing is guaranteed.
Q: What about President Donald Trump's tweet in which he taunted Kim Jong Un, who'd earlier said he has a nuclear button on his desk, by boasting of a bigger and more powerful "nuclear button" than Kim's.
A: For the time being, both Koreas are ignoring it.
Trump's tweets worried South Koreans at first, but they are becoming used to them. President Moon will likely prefer to focus on the rare signs of rapprochement with the North.
The North, however, rarely lets an insult pass, though there's a chance it could keep its outrage against Trump separate from whatever its intentions are with the South.
Foster Klug is the AP's bureau chief in Seoul and has covered the Koreas since 2005. Follow him at @apklug