The Post-Olympic Thaw on the Korean Peninsula

The immediate political impact of the Winter Olympics has made a number of commentators unduly euphoric over the pace and prospects of rapprochement between the two Koreas. To listen to them, you would think that Pyongyang will imminently stop menacing its southern neighbor, Seoul will withdraw from joint US-South Korean military exercises, and a new summit will be held shortly, with unification of the two halves of the peninsula not far off.

In actual fact, however, it is far too early to pop the champagne.

It is very good, of course, that North and South Korean athletes competed under one flag (not for the first time, incidentally) and no one attempted to steal the show – there were neither North Korean missile launches, nor provocations against the North Korean delegation. The “Olympic truce” due to last until the end of the Paralympic Games is a very positive development as well. The North Koreans sent two delegations to the South, with the former breaking all previously existing records for representation. Kim Yong-nam is formally number two in the state hierarchy. Since Kim Jong-un has not yet traveled abroad, it is Kim Yong-nam who represents the DPRK at all foreign events. A no less important participant is Kim Yo-jong, who joined the negotiations as a member of the ruling dynasty.

This level of openness is a significant fringe benefit for North Korea, to say the least. The Northerners, be it the government delegation, the group of artists that gave two concerts in the South, or just ordinary cheerleaders, received a lot of media attention. All of them were cheerful and open enough to refute the standard propaganda that Pyongyang was not keen on dialogue and only knew deception and blackmail. Now the critics accusing the North of intractability will have more difficulty finding examples.

But this tactical success should not be exaggerated. A misinterpretation could have strategic consequences. If we analyze US and South Korean media coverage related to North Korean openness, we see that even President Moon Jae-in told his American colleagues that this behavior was a consequence of Trump’s wise sanctions policy, not Kim Jong-un’s goodwill.

In reality, it is unclear how strongly the sanctions have impacted the North Korean economy or what Kim’s safety cushion is. However, if you take concessions as a sign of weakness, your built-in assumptions based on years of propaganda will push you towards the conclusion that things must be bad inside the country, and you have only to step up pressure to bring about the hated DPRK’s collapse. I doubt it needs to be explained where this policy could lead, and how it could neutralize all the possible effects of the Olympic thaw. There are enough biased and ignorant people in the United States, who are ready to interpret any event in the North as a sign that the “regime” is breathing its last.

President Moon Jae-in has also shored up his political position inside the country, which was rather precarious before the Olympic Games. His ambitious and controversial program of political and economic reforms requires a high degree of trust, which he seems to have gained by hosting a Winter Olympic Games free of tension. Again, even though Moon says different things in different situations, his remarks intended for domestic consumption were mostly about peace, friendship and North-South rapprochement. Even the largely unsuccessful South Korean-Japanese summit, at which the hosts had to listen to a lot of justified reproaches, was turned to advantage, with the Japanese PM allegedly trying to convince Mr. Moon that his country must continue joint military exercises with the US and the latter replying proudly that “we decide these issues on our own.”

Yet, although the Japanese were seemingly given an on-camera rebuff, the Americans declared in no uncertain terms that they would no longer put off the exercises. And it is still an open question whether the conservatives and enemies of Pyongyang will try to use exercises to win back some of what they lost, by increasing the scale of the exercises or by demonstratively including elements that can in no way be interpreted as defense against foreign aggression.

Recall that North Korea has traditionally regarded the spring exercises, involving over 200,000 personnel, as a rehearsal of a large-scale invasion. The event is always accompanied by a rise in temperature, an exchange of threatening statements, and a North Korean response in the form of missile launches, even if only a short-range missile is fired.

Although some experts assumed that the rapprochement between the Koreas would be followed by a warming in North Korean-US relations, this has not been the case. In South Korea, US Vice President Mike Pence did everything short of carry a placard denouncing North Korea, refusing to rise to wave to the joint Korean team and later demonstratively meeting with North Korean defectors. This is why US statements claiming that a meeting with the North had been planned but North Korea canceled it two hours before the scheduled time are, to my mind, an awkward attempt to pass the buck. Washington could have avoided this provocative behavior, if it were only willing to engage in formal dialogue.

North Korean representatives ostensibly declared that North Korean-US relations should develop in parallel with relations between Pyongyang and Seoul and that the North had “sufficient intentions to pursue dialogue with the United States.” But this was what appeared in the South Korean media, whereas North Korean newspapers said that the DPRK has never begged for dialogue and never will.

As a result, the prospects for relations remain vague, and the recent resignation, “for personal reasons,” of United States Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun, possibly linked to the political impact of the Olympic Games, does not add more certainty. This State Department position, just like the ambassadorial post in the Republic of Korea, remains vacant, and even such an arch-enemy of Pyongyang as Victor Cha has failed to pass muster.

Hopefully, the Olympic thaw will last for some time to come, and the Moon administration will make some efforts to prolong it. In the mid-term, however, it must be clear that the moment South Korea starts insisting that the DPRK abandon its nuclear weapons program, the door will be promptly shut in its face. In the meantime, the topic of denuclearization already comes up in Moon’s statements, who, while wooing the North, continues to emphasize that the South Korean-US alliance is as strong as ever, and that dialogue must only be a means of achieving the nuclear disarmament of the Pyongyang regime.

Commenting on the chances for an inter-Korean summit, Moon said diplomatically that one would be held as soon as conditions were right. Given the likely course of developments, this can be interpreted as “when hell freezes over.”

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.