North Korea’s decision to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games at South Korea’s PyeongChang, an east-coast town 50 miles from the heavily fortified border, has raised hopes that the isolated regime might be open for resumption of peaceful contacts with Seoul.
But the North Korean gesture also complicates South Korea’s relations with the United States, a principal ally itching to teach Pyongyang a lesson.
Inter-Korean relations have turned frosty during the past two years, with dictator Kim Jong Un focusing on development of a nuclear and missile program in defiance of global sanctions. Straining under heavy UN sanctions and realizing the rest of the world fears prospects of another war erupting on the peninsula, Kim may be seeking a chance to resume economic ties through the so-called Olympic thaw.
In a January New Year statement, Kim declared he was prepared to “help” South Korea bring about a successful Olympics by participating under a joint team marching under one flag. His offer was pegged to the “unity” theme, describing the Olympics as an honorable event for all Koreans, north and south. The North’s ultimate intention is to use nationalism as a cover for fanning anti-US sentiments aimed at undermining the US-South Korean military alliance.
Sudden burst of goodwill
Kim moved swiftly on his proposal, sending a 32-member sports team including skiers, skaters and a women’s ice hockey team. He also offered to dispatch a 240-member cultural delegation including orchestra and taekwondo martial arts performers. The display of goodwill marks a sudden reversal after a year of 20 ballistic missile tests including three long-range intercontinental missiles.
Seoul officials are not surprised. The North endures worsening economic hardships from global sanctions imposed by UN Security Council resolutions, and Chinese and Russian participation, even half-heartedly, makes the pressure harder to bear, suggest analysts. A bigger concern is China reducing imports of coal and other resources from the North, slashing Pyongyang’s foreign-exchange income by nearly 90 percent, according to one private calculation. Beijing has also reduced oil supplies, limiting the North’s military’s capability.
Other analysts suggest the regime is alarmed by the Trump administration’s relentless harsh rhetoric. US President Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” statement plus his controversial speech at the UN General Assembly promising to “completely destroy” North Korea in the event of war drive fear. North Korea has not forgotten the massive bombing campaigns inflicted by US airpower during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Fear of US President
Fearing an unpredictable move by Trump and perhaps hoping for some secret influence, Pyongyang has recently taken to sending high-level emissaries to Moscow – notably not to Beijing, which is no longer trusted – pleading for intervention. Recently, North’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho also wrote to the UN secretary-general, urging the United Nations to restrain the United States from starting a war on the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in is keen to prevent war. In the face of accusations of pandering to the dictator’s whims, Moon seizes every opportunity to underscore that the United States and South Korea should explore peaceful means to press the North for denuclearization.
Trump’s controversial statements exacerbate tensions, and reports of US readiness to level a punishing “bloody nose” attack on the North undercut Moon’s position. Moon is as dismayed by reports of US war plans for the North as he is by Kim’s military provocations. Moon’s chief concern is to achieve denuclearization by nonmilitary means, such as economic sanctions. “I have made it in no uncertain terms to [Trump] that no war is going to start here without our consent,” he declared soon after his June visit to Washington.
Hardliner not hardline enough
To his utter frustration, however, he must juggle threats and reports that are unconducive to dealing with North Korea. Most recently, Trump backed off from nominating Victor D. Cha as ambassador to Seoul. Cha, with a hardline reputation on the North from his days on the national security team under George W. Bush, is said to have been rejected by the White House for the position after opposing the notion of “limited” or “preventive” airstrikes against the North. In an essay for The Washington Post shortly after reports that he had been sidelined, Cha said that he not only opposed such strikes, but the so-called “bloody nose” strike could prompt the North’s retaliation.
US and South Korean military planners have long conceded that war on the peninsula would have horrific consequences – Seoul, South Korea’s capital with a 10 million population, is 25 miles from the border. The North, with more than 350 long-range artillery pieces deployed along the border, could hit Seoul with 350,000 shells a day. That makes Seoul a North Korean hostage. The principal problem posed by a preventive airstrike is the certainty of a North Korean response, assert military planners. This sobering scenario of extensive casualties presumably stops Moon from endorsing Trump’s war plans.
“It would be a terrible mistake to assume Kim is irrational enough to start a war that will annihilate his country,” one analyst said. “Nor is it realistic to expect North Korean military not to retaliate in the event of a surgical strike.” Given the potential for a devastating war and the balance of fear on the peninsula, Seoul does not expect Kim to accept denuclearization talks.
Jong-un unlikely to de-nuke
While the North shows every sign of worrying about the consequences of sanctions, few analysts expect these to force Kim to accept denuclearization without major reward in return. One indication of that price might be Kim’s recent support for China’s so-called “Double Freeze” proposal, under which the North would stop missile and nuclear tests in exchange for ending the annual US-South Korean military exercises. For Washington, that’s hardly a deal. The United States opposes any option not including prior commitment to denuclearization. That being the case, Seoul can only hope that sanctions will achieve what the US achieved with the Iran agreement.
By participating in the Olympics, North Korea challenges the US-South Korean alliance and global sanctions. For example, the North announced that a ferry will deliver the pop orchestra, and this requires Seoul making an exception to an established rule banning North Korean aircraft or ships entering South Korean territory. Another abrupt move: North Korea is sending Kim Yong Nam, titular head of state, to represent the country, joining Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and US Vice President Mike Pence at the opening ceremony.
The visit exacerbates Moon’s already embarrassing position at home, exposing him to wider attacks from conservative media and the opposition labeling him an appeaser who panders to an aggressive dictatorial state. Criticism will intensify if the delegation includes regime officials under sanction.
The scheme is working. The Trump administration has signaled displeasure over the presence of North Korean officials in PyeongChang, and reports suggest Pence will bring a guest to the games: the father of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who returned home in a coma in June and died after a 17-month of incarceration in North Korea. Warmbier’s presence could discomfort Moon more than the nonchalant North Koreans.
Military Parade to Rattle North’s Rockets
Meanwhile, North Korea plans to steal thunder from the opening ceremony with a massive military parade, including tens of thousands of goose-stepping troops and a mockup the Hwasong-15 intercontinental missiles capable of hitting the US mainland. The Olympics is only a temporary thaw as the North tries to divide allies and hopes that South Korea and other regional neighbors lose patience with Trump.
Shim Jae Hoon is a journalist based in Seoul and an occasional contributor to Asia Sentinel. This originally appeared in YaleGlobal Online, the website of the Yale University Center for the Study of Globalization, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.