SEOUL, South Korea — On both sides of the divided Korean Peninsula, the timing seems right.
The New Year’s Day proposal by North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, for direct talks with South Korea came as sanctions appear to be biting, with reports of shortages in the North and new pressure by Washington to intercept ships engaged in fuel smuggling.
The initiative was quickly embraced by South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, who sees his first concrete chance to carry out his campaign agenda of engaging with the North, while also easing tensions as Mr. Trump’s warlike threats have rattled his country.
In a telephone message delivered through the restored cross-border hotline on Friday, North Korea accepted the South’s proposal that the two sides begin talks on Tuesday, South Korean officials said. The talks, to be held in the border village Panmunjom, will be the first high-level inter-Korean dialogue in two years.
But if this is a potential opening for a thaw, it is a small one. Skepticism abounds not only in Washington but also among South Koreans.
Many in the country are mindful of how the so-called sunshine policy of two previous progressive leaders, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, failed to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and remain wary of its revival. As Mr. Moon learned from his predecessors’ experiences, any South Korean leader accused of risking the alliance with Washington in trying to improve ties with the North could become a lightning rod of conservative ire.
“If there are still those who think they can solve the North Korean nuclear problem and problems between the South and the North through dialogue, they must be crazy,” said Yoo Dong-ryul, a right-wing director of the Seoul-based Korea Institute for Liberal Democracy.
While most South Koreans today favor dialogue and peaceful accommodation with North Korea, many also fear that hastily engaging and granting the North economic concessions would throw a lifeline to Mr. Kim just as sanctions are squeezing his government.
In his New Year’s Day speech, Mr. Kim offered to send an Olympic delegation to the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month. But he also boasted that his country was now a nuclear power capable of thwarting a United States-led war on the peninsula, and he urged the South to abandon Washington’s campaign for sanctions and to work with “fellow countrymen” for peace — an opening Mr. Moon seized on.
“The Pyeongchang Olympics and the Paralympics there will become a clarion of peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Moon said on Wednesday, the day Mr. Kim also restored the telephone hotline that could facilitate such negotiations. “We must move through the crisis and toward peace like an icebreaker.”
South Koreans have grown increasingly nervous over the past year about Mr. Kim’s nuclear brinkmanship. But they have also begun questioning the implications of their alliance with a Washington led by an often unpredictable Mr. Trump, who has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea and this week talked of his power to wage nuclear war against Mr. Kim.
Mr. Moon insists that dialogue has become more urgent than ever because the South would bear the brunt of any war on the peninsula. South Korean officials privately say that the next several months may be the only opportunity to use negotiations to halt the North’s nuclear weapons program before it acquires a functional intercontinental ballistic missile.
While many South Koreans support a peaceful resolution to the tensions, many also question Mr. Moon’s approach — and Mr. Kim’s sincerity.
Analysts say Mr. Kim’s strategy is to make his nuclear weapons a fait accompli, while seeking a way to weaken the choking sanctions.
“In 2018, North Korea will likely launch an aggressive dialogue and peace offense and use the improvement of ties with the South to head off the sanctions and pressure,” the South’s government-run Korea Institute for National Unification said in an analysis of Mr. Kim’s New Year’s speech. “It is using the Pyeongchang Olympics to start to implement its approach.”
In his New Year’s speech, Mr. Kim acknowledged that his country faced “the harshest-ever challenges” because of the sanctions. And the Olympics offered an opening.
“Kim Jong-un knew that South Korea was desperate for the North to join the Pyeongchang Olympics and resume inter-Korean dialogue,” Chun Yung-woo, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator, said in a Facebook post. “Recognizing the South’s weakness, he is using it to try to undermine the South’s alliance with Washington, drawing it away from the United States and using it as a shield against possible American military action.”
On Thursday, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that his tough approach was working, saying that it brought North Korea to the negotiating table and that talks “are a good thing.”
Also on Thursday, Mr. Moon talked with Mr. Trump and said that he promised to consult fully with Washington during South Korea’s talks with the North, adding that they would help induce dialogue between the North and Washington, the South Korean president’s office said.
According to the statement from Mr. Moon’s office, Mr. Trump said the United States supported Mr. Moon “100 percent.” Mr. Trump also accepted Mr. Moon’s proposal that the allies postpone their joint annual military exercises during the Olympics, the statement said.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis played down the significance of the decision to delay the joint military exercises, saying that it was simply a matter of logistical timing and not necessarily a sign of a lessening of tensions.
“I would say for us it’s a practical matter,” Mr. Mattis told reporters on Thursday during an impromptu press briefing at the Pentagon. He said the military exercises would be held sometime after the conclusion of the Paralympics, which end March 18.
Mr. Mattis also said it was too soon to know whether the North’s recent diplomatic overture to South Korea would bring about broader talks. “I wouldn’t read too much into it, because we don’t know if it’s a genuine olive branch,” he said.
Analysts say the North views its participation in the Olympic Games as a favor to Mr. Moon, and would most likely demand major concessions from Seoul.
Signaling his demands, Mr. Kim urged South Korea to stop annual joint military exercises with the United States. North Korea is also likely to demand that the South reopen a joint factory park in the North Korean town of Kaesong that the South shut down in 2016. It could also insist that South Korea lift a trade embargo it imposed in 2010 while accusing the North of torpedoing a South Korean Navy ship.
Lifting such sanctions without clear North Korean movement toward denuclearization would open a crack in the American-led international campaign to pressure the North and cause a fissure in the alliance between Seoul and Washington. It would also prove unpopular in South Korea, especially among its older and conservative population, whose emotions over the ship’s sinking remain raw. The South is set to hold elections for mayors and governors in June.
North Korea has already signaled that tough negotiations loom.
Ri Son-kwon, who announced Mr. Kim’s decision to restore the cross-border hotline, was one of the hard-liners who South Korean officials said were behind the torpedo attack in 2010. Since Mr. Kim took power, most of the North Korean negotiators who worked with the South during its sunshine-policy period have died or been purged or executed by Mr. Kim, including his uncle, Jang Song-thaek.
Mr. Moon has expressed a willingness to accommodate the North, particularly with his proposal to postpone the joint American-South Korean military exercises until after the Olympics in February and the Paralympics in March. But the North wants a longer-term halt.
“Once the joint exercises resume in April, the South-North relations will chill again,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “There are reasons to believe that things will get much worse in the second half of the year.”
And South Koreans are mindful of Mr. Kim’s past behavior. In his New Year’s speech in 2016, Mr. Kim said he was willing to improve ties with the South. Several days later, the North conducted its fourth nuclear test. This year, Mr. Kim threatened to mass-produce nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles. He also called for an ability to launch an “immediate nuclear counterattack.”
If North Korea conducts more weapons tests, Mr. Cheong said, whatever thaw would be created by the North’s Olympic participation would prove to be only “temporary.”