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North Korea tensions ease ahead of Winter Olympics

North Korea tensions ease ahead of Winter Olympics
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After months of turmoil over nuclear testing, tensions appear to be thawing on the Korean peninsula ahead of next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea.

South Korea and North Korea made progress at their first high-level diplomatic talks in two years, with Pyongyang agreeing to send a delegation to the Olympics and both agreeing to military talks in the future.

Meanwhile, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE said he’s open to talks with North Korea and mused that he “probably [has] a very good relationship” with its leader, Kim Jong Un, despite calling him “Little Rocket Man” in the past.

Lawmakers and experts say last week’s developments are a good sign, but that it’s too early to know whether a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff is any closer. 

“I think it’s a positive sign,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinGOP leaders hesitant to challenge Trump on Saudi Arabia Dem senator: Trump accepts Saudi denials because he is 'enamored' with dictators Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP MORE (D-Md.) said of the talks between the two countries. “We’ll see where it goes.”

Anxiety was underscored over the weekend when a false alert warned Hawaii of an incoming ballistic missile, sparking panic.

The eyes of the world will be on the Korean peninsula next month as athletes descend on Pyeongchang to compete in the Winter Olympics.

Prior to this week, close observers of North Korea warned that the Olympics were a prime opportunity for Kim to conduct another ballistic test.

But now North Korea is sending a delegation to the games that will include athletes, cheerleaders, performing arts squads and high-level officials. 

North Korea’s decision to send a delegation takes a provocation during the games off the table, said Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest.

Rather, Kazianis said, Kim now appears to be looking to use the games to give North Korea some legitimacy.

“The whole world [is] going to go goo goo and gaga over those figure skaters,” Kazianis said, referring to the only two North Korean athletes to qualify for the Olympics. “He’s putting a human face on North Korea.”

Trump, too, has cooled his rhetoric as the Olympics approach. After rattling the world by bragging about the size of his “nuclear button” compared to Kim’s, Trump agreed to delay joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises until after the Paralympics in March.

He also told South Korean President Moon Jae-in of his “openness to holding talks between the United States and North Korea at the appropriate time” and told The Wall Street Journal that “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea” while refusing to confirm or deny whether he’s already spoken with Kim. 

Trump over the weekend, however, said he was misquoted.

"Obviously I didn’t say that,” the president tweeted. “I said 'I’d have a good relationship with Kim Jong Un,' a big difference."

The Journal also reported last week that even as tensions publicly cool, the administration is debating a “bloody nose” strategy of a limited strike on North Korea in hopes that the country doesn’t strike back.

But a South Korean statement on Trump’s call with Moon quoted Trump directly as saying the report was “not true at all,” and lawmakers who speak with the administration were also dismissive of the report.

“I know who it is that's been advocating that, but … I don’t think that’s something that’s seriously being contemplated today,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerOvernight Defense: Trump shifts tone on Saudis | New pressure from lawmakers | Trump: 'Certainly looks' like Khashoggi dead | Pompeo gives Saudis days to wrap up investigation | Trump threatens military action on border to stop migrants Trump changes tone on Saudi Arabia amid mounting pressure The Hill's 12:30 Report — Mnuchin won't attend Saudi conference | Pompeo advises giving Saudis 'few more days' to investigate | Trump threatens military action over caravan MORE (R-Tenn.) said Tuesday of the “bloody nose” idea.

Corker said Thursday that the week’s developments have raised his hopes of a diplomatic solution to the crisis “a little bit.”
 
“I had breakfast with [Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson on Tuesday, and I feel like, based on that conversation, progress is being made,” Corker said.

Still, Corker added, “that’s a today feeling."
 
Cardin, who is Corker’s Democratic counterpart on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the U.S. needs to form a strategy with allies before progress can be made in negotiations with North Korea.

“We have to figure out a pathway for negotiations,” he said. “There needs to be a common strategy working with our allies, including South Korea, including Japan, including Europe. And I would hope we can strike a strategic partnership with China on an off-ramp so we can move forward on the discussions between North and South like we hope to.”
 
For now, though, it appears the Olympics are providing incentive for all sides to turn the temperature down.

"The Winter Olympics serve as the ideal neutral grounds for this first step, showing the potential of sports diplomacy in fostering peace,” Jean Lee, global fellow at The Wilson Center, said in a statement this week. “This move toward peace is a positive first step, but South Korea needs to proceed carefully to make sure that engagement efforts conform with its allies campaigns to pressure North Korea to conform to international law.

“We should, however, look at the bigger picture here: North Korea is finally signaling that it’s ready to rejoin the international fold. This is a positive first step."

Kazianis said Kim still hasn’t proved that North Korea has reliable re-entry technology for an intercontinental ballistic missile. As such, he predicts Kim will resume missile tests once the games end.

“Everybody has a short-term incentive to play nice,” Kazianis said. “After the Olympics, it’s game on.”

Retired Col. Richard Klass, a board member at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, likewise was skeptical the Olympics-inspired peace will last.

“Enjoy the warm weather now,” he said, “because there’s a cold front up ahead.”