Olympics: US fails to reach out to N.Korea
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.