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Rivals North and South Korea break their silence. Here’s what could challenge future dialogue

For the first time in more than two years, officials from the two Koreas sat for high-level, closed-door talks. The two sides agreed to hold future military talks to ease border tensions and the North pledged to send a delegation to next month's winter Olympic games. Judy Woodruff discusses the developments with former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Kathleen Stephens.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After hours of meeting in the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas today, North Korea agreed to send athletes to next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea.

    Senior officials from both countries also agreed to hold further talks to reduce months of military tensions. Today's talks may represent the first concrete step away from confrontation.

    It was the first time officials of the rival countries sat for high-level talks in more than two years.

    Ri Son Gwon (through interpreter): The relations between the two Koreas are frozen up more than this winter's weather. Despite the cold, Korean people express strong zeal for the improvement of inter-Korean ties.

    Cho Myoung-Gyon (through interpreter): There is a saying in our country that a start means it is half-done. It is hoped that we hold this dialogue with such strong will and perseverance.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    After meeting behind closed doors for 11 hours, the two sides agreed to hold military talks to ease border tensions. The North also said it is restoring a military hot line with the South, and it pledged to send a delegation to next month's Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.

    People on the streets in both Pyongyang and Seoul said they welcomed the talks and the outcome.

    Kim Ri Ah (through interpreter): Every Korean really wants relations between the North and South to improve. It's urgent.

    Ki-Young Jin (through interpreter): I think this is a chance for Korea, the only divided country in the world, to relieve tensions. I hope the talks will bring peace and compromise between the two Koreas.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But The Wall Street Journal's Andrew Jeong, speaking via Skype from Seoul, says one key topic wasn't addressed.

  • Andrew Jeong:

    The North appeared not willing to discuss the nuclear weapons issue, which is I guess at the heart of everyone's minds when looking at North Korea.

    And there was no specific agreement on when and if the two Koreas would discuss the issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The top North Korean delegate did give this assurance to the South.

    Ri Son Gwon (through interpreter): Regarding the nuclear issues, our strategic weapons, including atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb, and intercontinental ballistic missiles, are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump and North Korea's Kim have regularly traded threats and insults, but, on Saturday, Mr. Trump suggested he would be open to his own talks with the North Korean leader.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Sure. I always believe in talking. Absolutely, I would do that. No problem with that at all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The State Department called today's talks between the two Koreas a good first step. That came up again at today's White House briefing with Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

  • Sarah Sanders:

    The North Korean participation is an opportunity for the regime to see the value of ending its international isolation by denuclearizing. We hope that we can continue to move forward on that front.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The U.N. secretary-general also praised the turn of events.

    And so how big a breakthrough was today's meeting?

    Kathleen Stephens spent 35 years in the Foreign Service. She was U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011. She later served under President Obama as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. She's now a fellow at Stanford University.

    Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, welcome back to the NewsHour.

    So, what do you make of today's meeting and what apparently was agreed to?

  • Kathleen Stephens:

    Well, I do think it was a good first step, to quote my former employer. I think this is an important development today and an all-too-rare positive development in a couple of ways.

    First, I think South Korea — and I think you saw that reflected in the comments from South Korean citizens — South Korea has to be very pleased and relieved that the Winter Olympics, which they're hosting one month from today is the opening ceremony, now looks set to potentially be hosted with less tension and less threat of disruption or spoiling from North Korea and with North Korean participation.

    This is the first thing that South Korea's new president, Moon Jae-in, has been able to, if you like, deliver in terms of his desire and his promise to try to reengage with North Korea. But it is indeed a modest step, but an important one.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, a positive development. We don't know what it will mean in the long term, but that in the short term you're saying a positive development.

    What about, though, the fact, Ambassador Stephens, that the big sticking point between the United States and North Korea, their nuclear program, their missile program, didn't come up?

  • Kathleen Stephens:

    In a sense, I don't think that is surprising.

    North Korea has long taken the position that the issue of its nuclear missile program is one to be dealt with, with the United States. The Republic of Korea, as the U.S. ally, has made clear it's a concern to them, too.

    And I do note that the South Korean delegate made that point today. But this notion that the weapons are about the threat from the United States is a longstanding North Korean point, and I'm not surprised that they made it again.

    I do not see any evidence that they are ready to come to the table to talk about denuclearization. And that is indeed the huge looming challenge that still remains before us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, the North Koreans are sticking to their guns, so to speak. The U.S. is saying it's sticking to its position. You don't see any movement, any glimmer, positive glimmer there at all?

  • Kathleen Stephens:

    Well, no, I think there is a very positive and much-needed step of at least cracking open the door of some dialogue.

    And it is appropriate that it begin between the two Koreas. This is the Korean Peninsula. These are the people who have suffered the most from the division and the continued state of tensions and indeed virtual war over the decades.

    But it needs to be the first step towards something, towards creating the atmosphere where I would hope that, by spring, perhaps some kind of dialogue is possible. Now, that said, I can't imagine that North Korea's lack of demands today is going to continue forever.

    Once the Olympics are over, I think we're in for a period perhaps some reduced tensions, of some confidence-building, which is a positive thing. But, by the spring, there will be some important questions there about future military exercises, about the sanctions, and indeed about any future testing of nuclear devices or missiles.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And on the other hand, though, you have this week reporting from The Wall Street Journal that there is discussion inside the Trump administration about the possibility of targeted strikes on North Korea by the United States, perhaps at one of their military sites, missile sites.

    What would that mean if that happened?

  • Kathleen Stephens:

    Well, it is indeed a very risky strategy, in my view.

    Successive American administrations have looked at the notion at some kind of limited strike, limited military action, and have judged on every occasion that the stakes are simply too high of a full-blown and disastrous war on the Korean Peninsula and beyond.

    I think that would remain the calculation of this American administration. But that kind of talk is indeed unnerving in South Korea and indeed in North Korea, and could well figure into Kim Jong-un's own calculations that perhaps this is the time, when he's also under increasing pressure from sanctions, to try to put out a bit of an olive branch, to indeed put it out to his — as he puts it, his South Korean brethren, and to see if he can appeal, if you like, to the very natural desire for reconciliation, but — eventually, and for peace, but in the meantime for some reduction of tensions between the two Koreas.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it was sobering, sobering story, certainly got our attention, along with these talks.

    Former Ambassador Kathleen Stephens, we thank you.

  • Kathleen Stephens:

    Thank you.

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