North Korea may suddenly want talks because of how powerful it has become

  • North Korea's willingness to talk may be due to the strength of its nuclear capability, said Taylor Fravel, associate political science professor at MIT
  • Pyongyang and Seoul are due to hold formal discussions on Tuesday

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ignored recent peace overtures from Seoul but he's due on Tuesday to hold a formal dialogue with his southern neighbor for the first time in more than two years.

The sudden interest in talks may have something to do with Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal.

"The North has made significant advances in its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program so I think they feel a bit more willing to engage in talks now that they've actually demonstrated an incipient nuclear capability that can strike the U.S.," said Taylor Fravel, associate political science professor at MIT.

In November, the rogue state launched a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Known as the Hwasong-15, it can fly over 13,000 kilometers, or 8,080 miles.

Speaking on the sidelines of the UBS Greater China Conference in Shanghai, Fravel said he isn't expecting much from Tuesday's discussion, which he believes will largely focus on potential North Korean participation at the Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of PyeongChang.

Kim has said that he was open to sending a delegation to the sporting event. In response, South Korean President Moon Jae-In's administration offered high-level talks to Pyongyang.

Members of the People's Security Council take part in an anti-U.S. rally, in this September 23, 2017 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.
KCNA | Reuters
Members of the People's Security Council take part in an anti-U.S. rally, in this September 23, 2017 photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.

"The key thing to watch is whether or not there's a second round of talks," said Fravel, who's also a member of the board of directors for the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. "Certainly, not very much can be resolved in one meeting ... we'll have to see just how far the North is willing to go."

For now, expectations of North Korean provocation during the Olympics are low.

Kim is "clearly signalling a willingness not to disrupt the games and let them go forward," said Fravel. This is still a Korean event — albeit a South Korean one — and inter-Korean unity is still important to Pyongyang, he added.

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