Olympics: US fails to reach out to N.Korea

Global Times - - Front Page - By Li Kaisheng

With a jet car­ry­ing North Korea’s high-level del­e­gates to the PyeongChang Win­ter Olympics leav­ing the In­cheon In­ter­na­tional Air­port for Py­ongyang on Sun­day, the vaunted sports diplo­macy has ba­si­cally come to an end with mixed re­sults. It’s still un­known how long the peace­ful ef­fect the Win­ter Olympics brought to diplo­macy will last.

In­ter­ac­tions be­tween South and North Korea have been more in­tense than ex­pected. South Korean Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in held sev­eral rounds of talks with Kim Young-nam, pres­i­dent of the Pre­sid­ium of the Supreme Peo­ple’s Assem­bly of North Korea, and Kim Yo-jong, sis­ter of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Kim Yo-jong handed over a let­ter from her brother to Moon and ver­bally de­liv­ered Kim Jong-un’s in­vi­ta­tion for Moon to visit the North.

At the same time, ath­letes from North and South Korea walked to­gether at the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Win­ter Olympics; North Korean cheer­lead­ers cheered the uni­fied Korean team ahead of its women’s pre­lim­i­nary round ice hockey game against Switzer­land, and North Korea’s Samjiyon Orches­tra held suc­cess­ful per­for­mances in Gangne­ung and Seoul. All th­ese events por­trayed a thick at­mos­phere of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

In con­trast, there was no pub­lic con­tact be­tween US and North Korean del­e­ga­tions. US Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence sat just feet away from Kim Yo-jong dur­ing the open­ing cer­e­mony, but they didn’t speak. In­stead, Pence vis­ited the Cheo­nan Me­mo­rial and met a group of North Korean de­fec­tors, in an ap­par­ent ef­fort to hu­mil­i­ate North Korea. It’s a part of US strat­egy to put pres­sure on Py­ongyang.

The root cause of the North Korean nu­clear is­sue is Py­ongyang’s con­flicts with Wash­ing­ton. It’s also closely re­lated to North-South re­la­tions. A dis­cord oc­curred be­tween the US and South Korea in deal­ing with North Korea dur­ing the Win­ter Olympics, hold­ing back the peace process.

This stemmed from the pol­icy di­ver­gences be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Seoul. Wash­ing­ton opted for ex­ert­ing ut­most pres­sure on Py­ongyang to force it to aban­don its nu­clear pro­gram. It warned that “all op­tions are on the ta­ble,” in­clud­ing the use of force. The US is skep­ti­cal about North Korea’s Win­ter Olympic diplo­macy, sus­pect­ing it’s only Py­ongyang’s “charm of­fen­sive” with a goal to drive a wedge in US-South Korea al­liance.

Seoul also agreed to ratchet up pres­sure on Py­ongyang. But as a coun­try un­der di­rect threat posed by North Korea’s nu­clear weapons, both South Korean pro­gres­sives and con­ser­va­tives firmly op­pose a mil­i­tary so­lu­tion. Moon, as a pro­gres­sive leader, pur­sues a pol­icy of en­gage­ment with North Korea and would have found the Win­ter Olympics a golden op­por­tu­nity to mend ties.

De­spite sound en­gage­ment at the Win­ter Olympics, the US is the key to the North Korean nu­clear is­sue and with­out its ap­proval en­gage­ment with the North is unlikely to go far. Hence Moon, in re­sponse to Kim Jong-un’s in­vi­ta­tion, only said the two Koreas should “cre­ate con­di­tions” and strongly em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of US-North Korea di­a­logue

More wor­ry­ingly, the US’ blind re­fusal to en­gage­ment will deepen North Korea’s doubts about a mil­i­tary so­lu­tion. Py­ongyang will not yield to Wash­ing­ton’s pres­sure and will in­stead show more tough­ness. The US knows this well, but it’s still play­ing with fire, act­ing rather ir­re­spon­si­bly. There is also a need for Py­ongyang to ad­just its own poli­cies. The North Korean del­e­ga­tion seemed to have un­leashed good­will, but they said noth­ing about de­nu­cle­ariza­tion. Kim Jong-un needs to un­der­stand that as the sit­u­a­tion has changed, a dé­tente with the Moon gov­ern­ment doesn’t mean any re­duc­tion of the in­ter­na­tional pres­sure on Py­ongyang. What South Korea can of­fer to the North is lim­ited by US dom­i­nance. Some sanc­tions against North Korea have been tem­po­rar­ily lifted dur­ing the Win­ter Olympics, but once the Games ends, Py­ongyang will re­main fac­ing an iso­lated, frag­ile and dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion. Peace on the penin­sula still lies in en­gage­ment and di­a­logue be­tween the US and North Korea. Lead­ers of both coun­tries may not want a war, but their ob­sti­nacy and bold­ness to take chances may lead to one. To avoid the hor­ri­ble sce­nario, Py­ongyang and Wash­ing­ton should face up to the re­al­ity and re­turn to prag­matic and flex­i­ble poli­cies. The two should seize the op­por­tu­ni­ties of the on­go­ing Win­ter Olympics as well as the sub­se­quent Win­ter Par­a­lympic Games to bring the sit­u­a­tion on the penin­sula back on a peace­ful track.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Liu Rui/GT

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