SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, spent 2017 rattling the world with nuclear and long-range missile tests. Now, the new year has brought him an ideal opportunity for a sudden charm offensive: the Winter Olympics.
The announcement on Tuesday that the North would participate in the Olympics in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang next month — and that the Koreas would hold a variety of talks and other exchanges aimed at defusing tensions — was welcomed in the South as a reprieve from a tense year, marked by rapid advances in the North’s nuclear program and repeated threats of war from both Mr. Kim and President Trump.
But few said they believed that Mr. Kim was motivated by the Olympic spirit.
“Kim Jong-un’s priority is to head off President Trump’s threat to take military action against his government and to ease the impact of sanctions,” said Paik Hak-soon, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea. “Pyeongchang provides a perfect opportunity.”
Hints of Mr. Kim’s strategy could be found in his annual New Year’s Day speech, during which he proposed that the Koreas discuss the possibility of the North sending a delegation to the Games.
In the speech, Mr. Kim expressed confidence that the North’s nuclear weapons would prevent the United States from starting a war on the Korean Peninsula, boasting of a “nuclear button” on his desk. But he told his people to brace themselves for the effects of United Nations sanctions, which reportedly have begun to pinch.
Mr. Kim then extended an olive branch to the South, urging it to break ranks with Washington on the issue of sanctions. He called for “fellow countrymen” in both Koreas to work together for peace, an appeal certain to resonate with many South Korean progressives.
Soon after Mr. Kim’s speech, Pyongyang restored a hotline between the governments of the two Koreas after a two-year hiatus. By the end of the week, both sides had agreed to hold the talks that took place on Tuesday at the border village of Panmunjom, where it was announced that the North would send athletes to the Olympics, as well as a cheering squad and even a performance-art troupe.
In a joint statement, both Koreas also said on Tuesday that they would hold more high-level discussions and promote exchanges in various fields, including dialogue between their militaries, to ease tensions and to “foster national reconciliation and solidarity.”
If the talks between the Koreas lead to substantial negotiations, it could undercut Mr. Trump’s threats of war while also lessening pressure on China to tighten sanctions further. But any new provocation from the North, such as another missile test, could quickly change that.
Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul, said of Mr. Kim, “His peace offensive is leading to the first steps in a transition from confrontation and rising tensions to easing tensions and peace on the peninsula.”
Mr. Kim may have chosen to reach out to the South because the sanctions against his country are hurting, or because he is rattled by Mr. Trump’s threats of military action, analysts said. Or it could be that he is satisfied with the progress of his country’s nuclear program and sees this as the right time for a deal.
But if his intent was to divide the South from the United States by appealing to South Koreans’ ethnic nationalism, as well as to their longing for a thaw after months of tensions, he could hardly have chosen a better way than through sports.
Despite the Koreas’ longstanding enmity, South Koreans often cheer for the North’s athletes in international competition. As early as 1964, the two Koreas discussed fielding a joint Olympic team, an idea that has resurfaced over the decades but never come to pass. (In 1991, the Koreas did send joint delegations to table-tennis and youth soccer tournaments.)
In 2000, however — the year the two Koreas held their first summit meeting — athletes from both countries marched together at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. They did so again at the Athens Games in 2004, carrying a blue and white flag representing a unified Korea. Their athletes last marched together at the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, in 2007.
“I want to see the same glory again,” President Moon Jae-in of South Korea said in June, suggesting that the two nations march together in Pyeongchang. On Tuesday, South Korean officials said the two sides were close to agreeing that they would do so.
In Mr. Moon, Mr. Kim has a willing partner in his peace offensive. For months, he has called for dialogue with the North and urged its participation in the Olympics, while objecting to the Trump administration’s talk of possible military action. To accommodate the North, Mr. Moon also offered not to hold his country’s joint military exercises with the United States during the Olympics.
For Mr. Moon, too, Mr. Kim’s overture could hardly have come at a more opportune time.
His government has had trouble selling Olympic tickets. But now there is the prospect of throngs of Koreans cheering together at the Games for athletes from North and South. Such scenes could help deflect conservatives’ criticism of Mr. Moon’s policy of promoting dialogue with the North.
“Sports diplomacy is a sexy affair,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “Pyongyang has all the reason to jazz up the Winter Olympiad and be the center of attention.”
Mr. Moon apparently hopes that this thaw will lead to broader negotiations, involving Washington, about how to end the North’s nuclear program. But like the rest of the world, he will be well aware that past moments of optimism regarding North Korea have ended in disappointment. Ri Son-kwon, the chief North Korean delegate to the talks on Tuesday, protested when South Korea called for the resumption of denuclearization talks, according to pool reports.
“The South and North have different motives behind the peace offensive,” said Mr. Koh of Dongguk University. “The North wants the world to accept it as a nuclear weapons state and live in peace with it. The South promotes peace to denuclearize the North.”