The talks between the two Koreas on Tuesday at the border truce village of Panmunjom appeared amicable and constructive, with both delegations seemingly intent on making the meeting a success, even making quips about the winter weather and overcoming their frosty relations.
And the unusual, if not unprecedented, suggestion by Ri Son-gwon, the chief delegate of North Korea, that the talks be “open and transparent” and their content be made public “in light of the great expectations and huge interest both here and abroad”, was itself something of a break with the past.
It is now almost certain that we will see North Korean athletes competing in the Winter Olympics to be held in South Korea next month, and we may witness something similar to the scenes at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, when athletes from both sides of the 38th Parallel marched under one “Korean Peninsula” banner in identical uniforms at the opening ceremony.
It is also likely that families divided by the Korean War may get another precious opportunity to meet their loved ones amid this sudden exchange of goodwill.
Looking forward to the best-case scenario, the latest rapport might extend further, toward a longer-lasting thaw in inter-Korea relations.
However, as history has repeatedly proved, inter-Korea ties are too fickle to support unalloyed optimism. It is very hard to tell whether the current rapprochement will outlast even the upcoming Winter Games, and if so for how long.
And the upbeat assumption of South Korea’s chief delegate Cho Myoung-gyon that “well-begun is half done”, may be more applicable to inter-Korea ties than the broader peninsula issues.
While tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang may have eased, at least for the time being, the dangerous stand-off on the Korean Peninsula has not suddenly dissipated. That’s not only because there are other stakeholders, but also because Pyongyang still refuses to relinquish its pursuit of nuclear weapons – grounds for war, according to the United States, which has been placed in the firing line.
Although US President Donald Trump again indicated willingness to personally talk with Kim Jong-un on Saturday, his US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley immediately stated the precondition was Kim stop weapons testing for a “significant amount of time”.
However, that does not slam the door shut, as Kim can easily satisfy that request. And after their useless trading of insults, both Trump and Kim may want to try something different.
In that case, the meeting in Panmunjom may well prove to be a welcome New Year’s gift.