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South Korea's Olympic goal: engage Kim without irking Trump

[SEOUL] South Korean officials will face a challenge as tough as any Olympic feat this week: Drawing the North Koreans back to talks without undermining the US's hard line against Kim Jong-un.

The neighbours are slated to hold their first high-level meeting in more than two years at 10am on Tuesday at a border village. The talks - focused primarily on North Korea joining next month's Winter Olympics in nearby Pyeongchang - are the best chance to resurrect negotiations on Mr Kim's nuclear weapons programme since US President Donald Trump took office.

They also represent a moment of risk for an alliance that has endured since the Korean War in the 1950s. While President Moon Jae-in has long favoured engagement with North Korea - and set no limits on the meeting's agenda - he doesn't want to endanger American-led efforts to isolate Mr Kim until the North Korean leader agrees to abandon his nuclear weapons programme. 

Those competing interests restrain what Mr Moon's negotiating team can offer North Korea beyond cooperation in the Olympics. Some possible South Korean enticements, such as reopening a jointly run industrial park and resuming tourism to North Korea, could undercut United Nations sanctions that were tightened just a few weeks ago.

In addition to the Olympics, South Korea plans to talk about opening a dialogue with the North Korean military and reuniting separated families, Unification Ministry spokesman Baik Tae-hyun told reporters in Seoul on Monday. Both measures were proposed by Mr Moon last year.

Mr Moon's government doesn't know what North Korea wants from talks, according to three South Korean government officials. In initial conversations, North Korean officials haven't indicated their goals besides participating in the Games, said the people, who asked not to be named because they weren't authorised to speak publicly.

"For the South, it's important to defend its red line of not damaging the UN sanctions," said Shin Beomchul, a professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy and a former director general for policy planning at the foreign ministry.

"Discussions are likely to include reunions of separated families and military trust-building, but the North may try to add what's on its wish list, such as humanitarian aid and economic cooperation."

Mr Kim's motivation for suddenly proposing the Olympic detente in a New Year address, a departure from his usually dismissive approach toward South Korea, has been seen as an attempt to exploit Mr Moon's desire for reconciliation and Mr Trump's push to eliminate a threat to the US homeland. Sanctions against Mr Kim have targeted oil imports and much of the country's export revenue.

A commentary published Sunday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang described improved ties with Seoul as a "crucial matter" and warned that "depending on foreign powers" could complicate talks.

Mr Trump and other US officials have so far expressed support for the dialogue while playing down the prospect of a bigger breakthrough. Mr Kim has vowed to never surrender his nuclear arsenal, which makes any US-backed regime-change effort like those in Iraq and Libya far more dangerous.

"Right now, they're talking Olympics. It's a start. It's a big start," Mr Trump told reporters at Camp David on Saturday. The president, who had previously dismissed the value of diplomacy, said it would be "great for humanity" if something more resulted, even suggesting he could meet Mr Kim under the right conditions.

Other Trump administration officials have been cautious. Secretary of Defense James Mattis on Friday said North Korea can't "drive a wedge" into the US-South Korea alliance, while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Associated Press that it could be an important breakthrough or simply a meeting "about the Olympics and nothing else happens".

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - another key player in the US-led pressure campaign against Mr Kim - also expressed wariness. He told Japan's NHK network on Sunday that North Korea must abandon its nuclear programme and "talks for the sake of talks are meaningless".

The South Korean delegation expected to meet at the village of Panmunjom, where the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1953, will be led by Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon. He'll face Ri Son Gwon, chairman of North Korea's Committee for Peaceful Unification.

"It's an open-ended agenda that enables discussion on every issue of mutual interest," said Koh Yu-hwan, who leads an advisory group to Mr Moon's National Security Council and teaches North Korean studies at Dongguk University.

"The main focus and real outcome will be the North's Olympics participation."

Neither South Korea nor the US want any disruptions during the Olympics in Pyeongchang, about 80 kilometres from the heavily fortified border. At Mr Moon's request, Mr Trump delayed annual joint US-South Korean military exercises - long a source of consternation to the North - until after the Paralympic Games end March 18.

Mr Moon was prepared to offer Mr Kim a wide range of Olympics options, South Korea's JTBC cable station reported, citing an official in the president's office it didn't identify. That included everything from forming a single cheering squad to fielding a joint team and making North Korea a co-host, the network said.

North Korean Olympic representative Chang Ung was expected to meet International Olympic Committee officials in Switzerland this week to discuss his country's participation in the event, South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported, citing unidentified people. Mr Chang told reporters Saturday at Beijing Capital International Airport that a pair of North Korean figure skaters were likely to compete, Japan's Kyodo News reported.

On Friday, Mr Moon said the Olympics talks would bode well for eventual negotiations between the US and North Korea, even as he pledged to be firm with Kim's regime.

"I won't stand too weak in front of North Korea only to gain a dialogue opportunity like we did in the past," Mr Moon said. "I'll pursue both dialogue and peace with North Korea," he said, adding that he would also ensure the country is "prepared with strong defence capabilities".