The South Korean government welcomed on Monday North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's proposal to open a dialogue between the two nations in an effort to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula and discuss the possibility of sending North Korean athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, which will be held in PyeongChang in February.
"We welcome that Kim expressed willingness to send a delegation and proposed talks as he acknowledged the need for improvement in inter-Korean ties," a spokesman for South Korean President Moon Jae-in said at a press briefing. "The successful launch of the games will contribute to stability not only on the Korean Peninsula but also in East Asia and the rest of the world."
The spokesman emphasized that Moon is open to talks without preconditions but also pledged to work with other world leaders to address concerns about the North's nuclear weapons program. The potential for diplomatic discussions between the North and South strongly contrasts with ongoing hostility between Kim and the Trump administration.
"The Blue House will cooperate closely with the international community to address the North Korean nuclear issue in a peaceful manner," Moon's spokesman said, "while sitting down with the North to find the resolution to ease tensions on the Korean peninsula and bring peace."
The comments came in response to Kim's annual New Year's Day speech, which was broadcast on North Korea's state-run television network earlier Monday.
"We sincerely hope that the South will successfully host the Olympics," Kim said, while also expressing interest in sending athletes to the games next month. "We're willing to take necessary steps including sending our delegation, and for this, the authorities from the North and South could urgently meet."
Beyond the upcoming athletic competition, "it's about time that the North and the South sit down and seriously discuss how to improve inter-Korean relations by ourselves and dramatically open up," Kim said.
"Above all, we must ease the acute military tensions between the North and the South," he concluded. "The North and the South should no longer do anything that would aggravate the situation, and must exert efforts to ease military tensions and create a peaceful environment."
Alongside Kim's expressed desire for diplomatic talks with Seoul, the North Korean leader reiterated his commitment to continuing his nation's nuclear weapons program amid ongoing provocations from U.S. President Donald Trump, warning, "it is not a mere threat but a reality that I have a nuclear button on the desk in my office," and "all of the mainland United States is within the range of our nuclear strike."
Although Trump has not yet responded to Kim's comments, Yun Duk-min, a former chancellor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, noted in an interview with Bloomberg that talks between the North and South could complicate the U.S.-South Korea alliance, and sustainable peace on a broader scale would be difficult to achieve without U.S cooperation.
"With South Korea also participating in the international sanctions campaign, it's not easy for Moon to come forward and accept it before North Korea shows sincerity with denuclearization," Yun said. "Inter-Korean relations will start to improve more fundamentally only if there's a change in the U.S.-North Korea dynamics."
Although U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has expressed a desire to engage in direct talks with North Korea, repeated statements from the White House—and the president himself—have consistently undermined such efforts by walking back Tillerson's remarks and denouncing the potential for a diplomatic solution.
"After getting nowhere with the Americans, North Korea is now trying to start talks with South Korea first, and then use that as a channel to start dialogue with the United States," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told the New York Times.