Two days of friendly basketball games winding up Thursday in Pyongyang were the latest in a slew of goodwill gestures between the Koreas in recent months. The women's and men's matches came just ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's arrival in North Korea on Friday for two days of talks over the future of the North's nuclear program.
A capacity crowd of 12,000 applauded as the teams — dressed in white jerseys that read "Peace" and green jerseys that read "Prosperity" — marched onto the court holding hands. Players from the North and South were mixed into teams for Wednesday's games.
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The South Koreans play the North Korean teams Thursday before returning home Friday.
It remains to be seen how much further the rival Koreas can push their conciliatory steps. The fate of these efforts is ultimately tied to progress in nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. If the nuclear talks bog down, it could mean curtains for inter-Korean detente.
Many good conversations with North Korea-it is going well! In the meantime, no Rocket Launches or Nuclear Testing in 8 months. All of Asia is thrilled. Only the Opposition Party, which includes the Fake News, is complaining. If not for me, we would now be at War with North Korea!
"Goodwill gestures between the Koreas can be compared to rocking back and forth in a rocking chair — it feels good, but you aren't really moving forward," said Bong Young-shik, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul. "These gestures alone don't ensure progress in denuclearizing the North and stabilizing peace."
The neighbors' militaries are in the process of restoring communication lines that could defuse crises across their tense border. Longer-term, the Koreas have vowed to improve the North's aging railways and roads.
Choi Kang, vice president of Seoul's Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said Trump's window to lock North Korea into a genuine denuclearization process may close as early as November if his Republican Party loses congressional elections, reducing the administration's political leverage. It's crucial that Pompeo leaves Pyongyang with something substantial, he said.
"It would be tough for Pompeo to squeeze a timetable out of North Korea this week, but he at least needs to get them to announce a rough roadmap for denuclearization," Choi said.