Why Has North Korea Agreed to Talks With the South? Kim Jong Un Is 'Image-Conscious' and Wants to Be Taken Seriously

Guests pose with Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games mascots Soohorang and Bandabi during the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games Kickoff in Times Square on October 11, 2017, in New York City. North Korea has agreed to proposed talks with the South on January 9 to discuss participation at the sporting event. Brad Barket/Getty Images for Jeong Culture and Communication

North Korea has accepted South Korea's invitation for high-level talks ahead of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, according to officials in Seoul, South Korea.

Scheduled to take place January 9 at the truce village of Panmunjom, Korea, in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between the countries, the meeting would represent the first face-to-face diplomatic contact in two years.

Pyongyang and Seoul, who technically remain at war since the 1953 Korean War armistice was never followed by a peace agreement, would have a long list of issues to discuss. The South Korean presidential office said there would be only one issue on the agenda: North Korea's participation in the Olympics, with Seoul hoping it paves the way for additional dialogue.

"I believe there will be discussions related to improving South-North ties after the North's participation in the Olympics is finalized," one official from the Blue House, the South Korean presidential office also known as Cheong Wa Dae, told the Seoul-based Yonhap news agency.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un referred to the possibility of collaboration around the sporting events in his new year's speech. Kim had referenced improving inter-Korean relations in previous speeches, but the political environment in South Korea since the election of President Moon Jae-in has created a real opportunity for talks to take place.

Experts in both South Korea and the U.S. warned that Kim's overture could be an attempt to sow division between Seoul and Washington, so Moon's balancing act between his neighbor and his ally will be key to the talks' success. For months, the South Korean president staked hopes for the resumption of dialogue between the North and South on the back of the Olympic Games, seen as a way to lure Pyongyang back to the negotiating table and striking a deal that would eventually lead to talks between the U.S. and North Korea, and a peaceful denuclearization of the peninsula.

"We will closely consult with the United States in the process of South-North Korea dialogue," Moon was quoted as saying in the Blue House readout of a call to President Donald Trump on Thursday, adding the talks could be a prelude to U.S.-North Korea dialogue on nuclear weapons.

In the call, the two leaders agreed to postpone annual military drills usually held at the beginning of March that North Korea regularly protests as a rehearsal for invasion. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the press that the drills delay, rather than a political gesture, was a "practical matter—we would call it de-conflicting," due to logistics issues surrounding the Olympic Games, held between February 9 and 25, and the Paralympic Games taking place between March 9 and 18.

"We don't know if it's a genuine olive branch or not," Mattis also said, referring to Kim's overture. "Obviously, we have to be open to anything that would implement a diplomatic solution."

The State Department said the talks would likely be narrower in scope. "These talks will be limited to conversations about the Olympics and perhaps some other domestic matters," spokesperson Heather Nauert said at a press briefing Thursday. "And when I say that we are closely linked up with the Republic of Korea, I can assure you that we are. This is not something where the Republic of Korea is going to go off freelancing."

Kim could use Moon's openness for its own propaganda purposes at home. Pyongyang could use it as a leverage to demand the cancelation of U.S.-South Korea military drills and the restart of aid payments, but it could also simply give the regime a boost, aiming to improve the country's image through participation in the Olympics.

"The North's bigger objective would also be to use the international platform to raise its profile and standing in the world and convince the international community that it is a peace-loving, normal state and not a dangerous rogue nation, and that its nuclear weapons are purely for self-defense purposes," Duyeon Kim, visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum think tank, told Newsweek.

"Kim Jong Un's North Korea is much more image-conscious than the North under his father. That image is to be perceived as a strong yet peace-loving nuclear power," she explained.

Trump has yet to comment on North Korea's agreement to the talks. The South Korean readout of the call between him and Moon, however, included a statement of full support for Moon and assistance in the dialogue process if needed.

That statement did not feature in the White House version of the readout, which said instead: "The United States and the Republic of Korea are committed to a safe and successful 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. President Trump told President Moon that the United States will send a high-level delegation to the Olympics."

President Trump tweeted his support for the talks in a post on Thursday, and attempted to take credit for the diplomatic overture.

"Talks are a good thing," he wrote. According to Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, however, any talks North Korea held without committing to denuclearize the peninsula would be meaningless. "We won't take any of the talks seriously if they don't do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea," she told reporters on Tuesday.