Kim Jong Un, to general surprise, announced in his New Year’s Day speech that he was prepared to “melt the frozen north-south relations,” to allow contacts with South Koreans and to discuss North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics to be held in February in South Korea.
US President Trump has tweeted that this would not have happened had he not been “firm, strong and willing to commit our total ‘might’ against the North.” He may be partly right. The single most important factor driving the North Koreans to this decision was probably economic distress.
President Trump’s unpredictability may also have contributed to Pyongyang’s decision. When United Nations Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman visited Pyongyang from December 5 through 8, the North Koreans asked him repeatedly how decisions were made in Washington. They are nervous that the United States is now behaving in ways that they cannot predict and are probably anxious at President Trump’s talk of military action.
Perhaps the immediate trigger was the announcement on December 19 by President Moon Jae-In of South Korea that he had asked the US military to postpone the annual joint US-South Korean exercises until after the Winter Olympics. The North Koreans hate these exercises and have often tried to get them postponed, reduced or canceled, so this may have seemed too good an opportunity to miss. They acted quickly, meeting South Korean officials secretly right at the end of December.
Person-to-person talks between North and South Korea are scheduled to be held next Tuesday — the day after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s birthday — at the Peace House in the village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone.