North Korea Reopens Hotline to South: Breakthrough or Another Ploy?

For Kim Jong Un, the possibility of expanded participation by North Korean athletes in the games themselves will carry benefits for his own regime legitimation: North Korean triumphs will be celebrated widely and will be used internally to legitimize his dictatorial rule and to normalize North Korea's global standing to his own people.

"We have received orders to reopen the Panmunjom phone line ... to discuss issues including our participation in the Winter Olympics", said Ri Son-gwon, the head of the North Korean government department that manages its South Korean policy.

Then, after most Americans headed to bed on Tuesday, with many wondering if the president might drag us into war via tweet, we learned of a major shift in relations between the two Koreas.

North Korea agreed on Friday to hold official talks with the South next week, the first in more than two years, hours after the United States and South Korea delayed a military exercise amid a standoff over the North's nuclear and missile programs. On Monday, he offered to discuss with South Korea the need for a peaceful winter Olympic atmosphere on the Korean peninsula.

Analysts with the website 38 North, which tracks North Korea, reported Pyongyang may be preparing to test a rocket engine at a facility in Sohae, North Pyongan province, where all of the North's satellite launches have taken place since 2012. The South kept trying the hotline every day, but the North never picked up.

But Kim remained steadfast on the issue of nuclear weapons, saying the North would mass produce nuclear missiles for operational deployment and again warned he would launch a nuclear strike if his country was threatened.

S. Korean president welcomes DPRK leader's New Year address
UNSC Resolution 2375, adopted in September, bans member countries from ship-to-ship transfers of any goods for North Korea . He also did not touch on Kim's demand that Seoul cancel its annual joint military exercises with the United States.

South Korea's liberal President Moon Jae-in has supported Trump's pressure campaign against North Korea, but he's less confrontational than the USA president and favors dialogue to ease the North's nuclear threats. "The reopening of a communications channel is highly significant because it is a step toward being able to hold dialogue anytime both sides want", said Yoon Young-chan, a spokesman for Moon.

The U.S. administration, however, voiced suspicions that Kim was seeking to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. That might also play into the North's narrative that its nuclear weapons are a necessary defense against USA aggression.

President Moon said last month that he had proposed to the US side to postpone the joint war games to successfully host the winter sports event.

North Korean efforts to divide the U.S. -ROK alliance will also likely fail because North Korean appeals to the dream of independent national unification have become clumsy and unappealing to the South Korean public.

The clear objective of Kim's dialogue offer to Moon Jae-in is to test South Korean willingness to trade short-term South Korean interests in peace and stability around next month's Olympics for longer-term economic and security concessions.

It does seem more promising than trying to top whatever insane thing Kim says, in 240 characters or less.

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