Peace seems to have returned, albeit temporarily, in the Korean Peninsula following the first inter-Korean talks held on 9 January after two years at the truce village of Panmunjom. This further led to North Korea’s decision to participate in the Winter Olympics at PyeongChang hosted by South Korea from 9-25 February.
In a further gesture of reconciliation, North and South Korea reached an agreement after three rounds of talks on January 17 for their athletes to march together under one flag at the opening ceremony of the Games. All these happened quickly after Kim Jong-un in a New Year speech said that he was willing to send a delegation to the Games.
While this is a welcome move between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un without any outside mediation, this further complicates President Donald Trump’s strategy for dealing with the nuclear-armed regime of Kim.
While this is definitely a positive sign for peace in the Peninsula, it would be credulous to expect that Kim would give up his nuclear ambitions. Though Moon’s peace drive is welcome, his move has angered the conservatives at home. When athletes of the rival Koreas walked together behind a single flag, called as the Unification Flag, for the first time since their 1945 division at the start of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it was a highly emotional event since it came on the wave of reconciliation mood following their leaders’ first-ever summit talks. Eighteen years later, a similar act is going to be played on February 9 when the Games’ opening ceremony is held. But this decision has certainly not generated as much enthusiastic supports as they had in 2000 both at home and abroad because of North Korea’s relentless surge in nuclear ambitions.
Moon is facing serious criticism at home. Conservatives questions why their athletes cannot carry their own national flag during the Games on their own soil. Calling Kim’s move as “disguised peace offensive”, Conservative leader Hong Joon-pyo charged Moon of converting PyeongChang Olympics to Pyongyang Olympics. Being critical of Kim’s abrupt overture, critics say Kim may be trying to use the Olympics to weaken US-led international pressure and sanctions after Kim conducted the sixth nuclear test and launched a series of missiles in 2017.
While public survey shows most South Koreans support North’s participation as a gateway to peace in the long-strained relations, another poll released on January 18 suggests that half of South Koreans oppose a joint flag. This shows that the general mood in South Korea this time is different than it was in 2000 Sydney Olympics during the era of détente and this is because of North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile programs. According to the survey by the private polling survey group RealMeter, 49.4 percent of 500 people aged over 19 voted against athletes from the two Koreas marching under the flag symbolising a unified Korea or the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games.
In 2000, athletes from both the Koreas entered the stadium behind a “unification flag” to the tune of the Korean traditional folk song “Arirang” instead of their individual national anthems. Although both South and North competed separately for medals, the name displayed during the marches was “Korea”. This time the situation is quite different. Mutual distrusts have deepened.
The International Olympic Committee headquartered in Switzerland endorsed the deal reached between the two Koreas on January 17 and approved the participation of 22 North Korean athletes. Both Koreas are now making their mutual arrangements for the event. The ever optimistic Moon is upbeat that the occasion will provide the Koreas with a chance to improve their frosty relations. If both parties can agree to field their athletes as a single team, that could be a step further to mend relations.
By using this opportunity, President Moon hopes to deepen diplomatic efforts and draw both Kim and Trump into a “dialogue process” and eventually lead to negotiations to discuss the denuclearisation issue. Moon’s intentions might be laudable but looks impracticable as Trump is unlikely to loosen his hard-line stance on North Korea. Those who support Trump’s hard-line position say that Kim may be exploiting the opportunity by using the Olympics to weaken the US-led international pressure and sanctions and Moon too naïve to falling into Kim’s trap. However, Moon hopes that since leaders of many countries shall visit South Korea during the sporting event, he can use this as a platform for diplomacy, including summit talks on key issues, and North Korea. South Korea hopes that leaders from more than 20 countries are expected to arrive. It is unclear at the moment how many summits will actually take place. For Moon, North’s participation is an “investment for a peaceful future”.
As per the present agreement, North Korea will send a 230-member cheering squad and a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team to the Games.
President Trump is not too happy at this turn of event. The process of détente initiated by Moon threatens to nullify Trump’s strategy of pressuring the North, with sanctions and threats of military action, to give up its acquisition of nuclear arsenal. The US is fearful that this gesture of unity between the two Koreas shall provide more time to Kim to make further advance in its nuclear programs. Trump suspects that the ultimate goal of Kim is to evict US troops from the Korean Peninsula and to reunify the two Koreas under a single flag. If the US could not deter the Soviet Union peacefully during the heydays of the Cold War, similar looks to be the case with North Korea. The symbolic value of a “unified flag” being hoisted in the opening and closing ceremonies will be in sharp contrast to the threats of war espoused by Trump.
Trump seems to be further perturbed that the two Koreas have agreed to field a joint women’s ice hockey team facing Japan on February 14 at the Games. This will be the first time the two countries would have a combined unified women team at the Olympics since 1991 when they had put together a single team for a table tennis championship in Chiba, Japan, and a youth soccer tournament. The unified table tennis team had won the gold medal defeating China. For Moon, the joint participation of athletes from both the countries would be a historic moment and a step towards reconciliation. But one need to remember that the bonhomie displayed in Sydney Olympics in 2000 and table tennis championship in 1991 in China were outside the Korean Peninsula. But the Winter Olympics Games are being held inside South Korea and there are elements in South Korea critical of North’s participation. So, the present situation is different than the past.
Though no noticeable headway on halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs can be expected from Moon’s sports diplomacy, people in South Korea living under tensions and talks of war at least for now can see a welcome reprieve in Moon’s strategy of engaging North Korea. Trump’s talks of “fire and fury” and threats to “totally destroy” North Korea had met with matching response from Kim who called Trump a “lunatic”.
Following Moon’s outreach to Kim, Trump too toned down by expressing willingness to talk with Kim, while questioning at the same time the value of such a meeting. It is to be seen from here on how a progressive government in Seoul and a hawkish government in Washington continue to conduct diplomacy vis-à-vis North Korea.
Another dimension of both Koreas coming together at the Olympics could be the Korean spirit displayed upfront by cheerleaders, spawning nationalism against Japan. All the three countries – both Koreas and Japan – continue to suffer from the shadow of history. While the abduction issue remains unresolved between Japan and North Korea, the comfort women issue remains a constant irritant in Japan-South Korea relations. Therefore, both Koreas coming together may not be good news for Japan.
The US, Japan and South Korea seem to have the basic understanding that resumption of communications by North Korea could be mere diversions with little impact on its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Yet, Moon believes in pursuing with the engagement strategy. While for the US and its allies getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons remains the ultimate goal of any negotiations, for North Korea and China possession of weapons by the North is the only credible deterrent against a possible US attack. With such rigid stances by either side, any expectation of real peace returning to the Korean Peninsula stemming from North’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics could be mere will-o-the-wisp.
Assuming that the Winter Games concludes successfully, the issue of conflicted unified identity shall keep both Koreas troubled and preoccupied for some time, thereby injecting another dimension to the troubled Peninsula. Given the division of domestic opinion on Moon going an extra mile to get North Korean athletes to participate, Moon’s engagement strategy shall remain under scrutiny for quite some time. It would be interesting to see in what direction inter-Korean relationship shall move if and when a transition in political leadership takes place from the liberals to conservatives.
For the present, the thaw in North Korea’s missile launches might not last long. True, the US and South Korea agreed to postpone the joint military drill until April, but once it restarts, one can expect Pyongyang to resume its trademark missile launches. Kim is not expected to be bothered whichever political party is in power in South Korea. So long as survival of the regime remains his primary consideration, one can expect resumption of the missile launches and nuclear tests. Besides North Korea’s participation, there is less clarity on matters outside the realm of the Olympics. No one knows if there is a broader agenda beyond the Olympics as no such thing is defined. The structure of confrontation is expected to remain the same even after the Games. Moon would be credulous to believe any opening on the denuclearisation talk post-Olympics as Kim is unlikely to renounce his nuclear ambitions. Given the fate Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein faced before, the deterrence value of possessing weapons of mass destruction shall remain Kim’s topmost consideration and therefore unlikely to be abandoned.
*Dr. Rajaram Panda is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Reitaku University, JAPAN. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect either that of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: [email protected]