South Korean Olympic Diplomacy: A Step in Right Direction

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has persistently made efforts to decrease the rising tensions with his neighboring country North Korea. Moon’s diplomatic outreach ensured the North’s participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea last month.

South Korea can claim diplomatic success if it persuades North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un for denuclearization and simultaneously retains its good ties with the United States to avert any chances of confrontation between the North and US.

Agreed that South Korea’s efforts do not signal the ‘ no repeat’ of such tensions, yet the efforts have marked a welcome pause in the inter-Korean tension.

It was a positive sign of reconciliation when the North and South Korean Olympic players marched together under a special unified flag at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games held in South Korea. The positive gesture might have surprised the critics. But for the keen observers, this was a ray of hope for the sun of friendship to come out from behind the dark clouds of hostilities and distrust between the two Koreas.

Interestingly, the main attraction at the ceremony was Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un.  She is the first member of the ruling Kim family to visit the South since the division of Korea at the end of World War II.

And during her meeting with President Moon at the presidential Blue House in South Korea on February 10, 2018, the sister Kim handed over a letter from her brother Kim Jong Un to the President. The letter was an invitation for the South Korean president to visit North Korea for a meeting with Kim Jong Un.

Optimistically, the credit for a decrease in the inter-Korean tensions is the direct result of President Moon’s diplomatic efforts and shows Kim Jong Un’s willingness for constructive engagement, according to John Delury, a North Korea analyst with Yonsei University in South Korea. “There will be many bumps along the road, but we are seeing real political will in Seoul and Pyongyang and clear messaging,” said Delury.

However, critics are of the opinion that North Korea’s willingness to dialogue is a political gimmick by the North. “North Korea is manipulating South Korea very effectively. I think before too long, President Moon is going to find that he runs into a brick wall,” said regional security analyst Grant Newsham of the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo.

Moreover, critics feel that North Korea’s participation in Winter Olympic Games is aimed at undermining Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy of forcing the North to halt its nuclear program.

What should not be forgotten is that in the last two years, North Korea has increased its weapons testing and has achieved a lot of progress in the manufacture of a long-range nuclear missile that can reach the US mainland. North Korea maintains that its nuclear deterrent is actually its defense against a potential American attack.

Speaking of the US willingness to engage in talks with North Korea is not clear.  The United States’ Vice President Mike Pence, who led the U.S Olympic delegation to South Korea, favored the need for increased sanctions and was unwilling to even greet Kim’s sister at the opening ceremony. But back
in Washington, Pence said the US might be open to unconditional talks with North Korea while at the same time keeping up pressure through sanctions.

It is worthwhile to mention that for official negotiations to begin for the purpose of easing sanctions against North Korea, the U.S. demands that the North must make a firm commitment to end its nuclear program.

It is no exaggeration that the US had agreed to postpone joint military exercise with South Korea till the Olympic ends. The move was made to ensure that no provocations occur during the games. On the other hand, there has been speculation that President Moon would like to cancel this year’s joint exercise in the spring, if the North holds off on further nuclear and missile tests.

A situation of this kind can reduce tensions in the Korean Peninsula and can get some sanctions removed against North Korea.

Perhaps, North Korea has begun to feel hurt by various rounds of economic sanctions imposed on it. The sanctions will remain in effect till the North joins the international comity of nations. For joining the
international community, the first step for Kim Jong Un is to show his firm willingness to talk.

In fact, Kim Jong-un has signaled to open a dialogue. The surprise offer for talks with the US has prompted restraint from President Trump who is usually outspoken. “I don’t want to talk so much about things that we don’t know yet,” he said in response to the proposal from Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, Trump administration is doubtful of the efficacy of the dialogue. For example, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats was reticent, telling Congress “I’m quite skeptical about all of this”.

He also said, “Maybe this is a breakthrough. I seriously doubt it.” And one senior administration official, said, “it’s a good idea for everybody to keep some perspective, take a deep breath.” The official added, “We have a long history, 27 years, of talking to North Korea. There is also a 27-year history of them breaking every agreement they’ve ever made with the United States.”

Evan Medeiros, a National Security Council director for Asia under Barack Obama, said it was likely Pyongyang which was trying to create differences between South Korea and Washington.

Anyway, the positive sign is that Kim Jong Un regime is ready for talks. That needs to be reciprocated and backed by diplomatic engagement at the highest level to reduce tension and build trust. A miscalculation at this stage may lead to catastrophic consequences for the entire world.

 South Korea needs to accelerate its diplomatic efforts to bring North Korea on the negotiation table with the US. Washington on its part needs to show political maturity and acumen to avert a nuclear crisis. Let the Olympic cooperation bridge the gulf that divides US, South Korea and North Korea.

Meanwhile, the good news, as reported in the international media, is that Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump are going to attend a meeting in May, this year. The possible high-level summit has stunned political observers and diplomats across the globe: there were alarming tensions between the US and North Korea following the latter’s nuclear and missile tests throughout 2017. There was a threat of military conflict between the two countries.

However, South Korea has wisely used the Olympic Event as a diplomatic platform to cause a thaw in tense relations between the US and North Korea. The gesture has proven so far a step in the right direction as Kim and Trump are going to shake their hands soon. Let the world community encourage the talks so that the threat of a war is averted.

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