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South Korea Will Take Up North Korea On Its Offer To Hold Diplomatic Talks

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un used his New Year's address to warn the United States about his country's nuclear weapons but also to offer an olive branch to South Korea. He suggested that the North and South meet for what would be the first official diplomatic meeting in over two years. Well, now South Korea is taking them up on that offer and suggesting a meeting next week in the small border town.

What might the two countries stand to gain from these high-level talks? Well, to get some answers, we're joined now by Frank Aum. He was a senior adviser on North Korea at the Defense Department and now a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Welcome to the program.

FRANK AUM: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: How significant is this diplomatic development?

AUM: This is very important. It's a great opportunity for President Moon and South Korea. He has staked his presidency on improving relations with North Korea, and he's made significant efforts during the last year to engage North Korea only to be rebuffed. And I think in recent months, in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which will take place in February, President Moon has tried to establish a more peaceful atmosphere. And that means that he wants to engage with North Korea, promote North Korean participation in the Olympics as well as delay the joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises which tend to be an irritant for North Korea.

SIEGEL: But would a meeting in and of itself - would that satisfy President Moon's needs right now, or would the meeting have to produce some progress as well?

AUM: Just having the meeting in and of itself is a big win. It'll give South Korea a chance to meet with North Korea, ask for a guarantee that there's going to be no provocations leading up to and during the Olympics and then maybe even asking for some sort of way to sustain these talks instead of having it just be a one-off.

SIEGEL: Well, how does this look to the people in North Korea? What does President Kim Jong Un want out of this?

AUM: So for the North Korean side, I think it's a little bit more unclear. Kim Jong Un in past New Year's Day addresses has made peaceful overtures to South Korea, so this is nothing new. This has been done before. And in the most recent one, he has asked for a reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula as well as a way to ease some of the inner-Korean military confrontations. So that's what Kim Jong Un has explicitly said.

I think the concern is that North Korea is also somehow seeking to create a wedge between South Korea and the United States by asking President Moon or whoever the South Korean representative is to ease up on some of the things like military exercises or economic sanctions that are at the core of U.S. policy towards North Korea.

SIEGEL: How realistic would he be if indeed that's an interest? That is, would the current South Korean leadership accept a more distant relationship with the United States, or is that pretty solid?

AUM: Well, I don't think we should be concerned about this wedge. The U.S.-South Korea alliance it isn't brittle. It's been robust and persistent over the last 60-plus years. We should give a little more credence to our South Korean allies here.

SIEGEL: We haven't heard the word nuclear in this in this conversation yet. In any of these approaches to South Korea from the North, do you think that there is any lessening of the North's commitment to maintain a nuclear program?

AUM: I don't think that issue would come up. North Korea likes to talk about those issues within the U.S.-North Korea forum. So I think, again, the agenda from what I can tell from the New Year's Day address is North Korean participation in the Olympics and then other issues - for example, reunion meetings between separated families between the North and South. That's a constant topic, so that may come up as well.

SIEGEL: Frank Aum, former senior adviser on North Korea at the Defense Department, currently at the U.S. Institute of Peace, thanks for talking with us today.

AUM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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