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Kim Jong Un's Olympic olive branch could see first talks in years

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By Mac William Bishop and Bruce Harrison and Lauren Suk  with NBC News
Image: Cho Myoung-gyon
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon leaves a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday.   -   Copyright  JUNG YEON-JE

SEOUL, South Korea — Delegations from North and South Korea could meet for the first official discussions between the neighbours since 2015 ahead of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

South Korea proposed Tuesday that talks be held on Jan. 9, said Cho Myoung-gyon, the head of his country's Unification Ministry. He said that Seoul had consulted with the U.S. and had Washington's blessing.

South Korea's overture was in response to comments made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a New Year's Day speech. He suggested immediate talks with Seoul over sending a delegation to the Olympics.

Image: Cho Myoung-gyon
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon leaves a press conference in Seoul on Tuesday. JUNG YEON-JE

"North Korea's participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to show unity of the people, and we wish the Games will be a success," Kim said.

TwoNorth Korean figure skaters have qualified for the Winter Games, which are due to begin on Feb. 9. However, Kim's speech was the first time Pyongyang has suggested it's seriously considering sending them to PyeongChang, which is located in the South. The neighbors officially remain at war.

North Korea did not immediately respond to South Korea's invitation. But the Unification Ministry said it made the terms simple: its delegation would meet Kim's delegation anytime, anywhere and that any format for the talks would be acceptable.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has repeatedly expressed hope that North Korea would participate at the Olympics. He sees their attendance as an opportunity for greater peace on the Korean Peninsula.

During Moon's campaign and since taking office in May, he's made it clear he plans to re-engage with North Korea after communications ground to a halt under previous administrations.

According to the Unification Ministry, the last official inter-Korea talks were held in December 2015. They followed a period of escalating tensions during which South Korean soldiers were injured by landmines in the Demilitarized Zone and the neighbors exchanged artillery fire across the border.

North Korea has said in public statements that it wants an official end to the Korean War. The conflict was halted by a 1953 armistice but no peace treaty has been signed. It also wants nothing short of full normalization of relations with the U.S. and to be treated with respect and as an equal in the global arena.

Ahead of the Games, Moon has asked the U.S. to delay annual military drills with South Korea that are due to begin next month. Washington has yet to respond.

Since taking office, President Donald Trump's harsh rhetoric has signaled his administration's hard-line stanceagainst North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Pyongyang has responded in kind by deriding the U.S. leader and threatening war.

The U.S. military has also conducted large-scale shows of force in the region, while Kim increased the pace of ballistic missile tests over the past year.

Amid the tensions, the North Korean dictator said Monday that "a nuclear button is always on my desk."

Kim added: "The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons."

Image: Kim Jong Un's New Year's Day address since 2013
A combination image of file photos shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un giving his New Year's Day address from 2013-2018. KCNA

In September, North Korea conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. However, analysts say that based on the current evidence it's hard to prove or debunk North Korea's claim that it can now hit faraway American targets such as New York or Washington, D.C.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on Twitter Monday that allowing North Korea to participate in the Olympics "would give legitimacy to the most illegitimate regime on the planet." He also suggested that the U.S. should not participate in the Games if athletes from the North did.

Graham also called North Korea's offer for talks an "absurd overture."

The International Olympic Committee is the formal channel for deciding which countries are invited.