The Winter Olympics have ushered in a period of detente on the Korean Peninsula. However, President Moon is now presented with delicate diplomatic challenges through which he will need to successfully navigate to avoid further deterioration of relations with both ally and foe.
By Inho Bae
My January editorial discussed the prospects of renewed efforts for dialogue between South Korea and the North during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Indeed, soon after our publication Kim Jong-un expressed willingness in a New Year’s address to explore the idea of his country participating in the Winter Games. This prompted high-level dialogues and ultimately resulted in a joint hockey team and athletes marching under a unified flag.
For President Moon, the games have been a mixture of debatable diplomatic gains and political controversies brought about by criticisms on his handling of North Korea’s participation. Moon’s administration quickly received heat for, what critics believe, helping North Korea hijack the games as a platform to advance its “charm-offensive” and drive a wedge between the US and South Korea. US Vice President Mike Pence also received flak for not standing for the joint Korea team and giving Kim Yo-jung (Kim Jong-un’s sister) the cold shoulder. On the other hand, the North Korean delegation stole the spotlight with the South’s near-royal treatment of Ms. Kim and a flurry of international media coverage of its outlandish cheerleading squad.
Amidst all this fog of activity and drama, what is more important is whether there is progress in bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table. During the games, Kim Jong Un invited President Moon for an inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, and the US relaxed its original stance of being closed to talks with North Korea unless certain preconditions are met. Although the latter raised expectations about what experts called “talks for talks” directly between Washington and Pyongyang, the North ultimately bailed last minute.
So, where does this leave us now? Moon can either accept the invitation to Pyongyang and risk further estranging policy-coordination with Washington, or decline it and risk throwing away an opportunity for which he has been yodeling this past year. Obviously, the latter is unlikely. Therefore, I would imagine his administration is working overtime this moment to devise a strategy to meet with Kim whilst a) not jeopardizing a united policy-front with the US, and b) not coming back home empty-handed and embarrassed. A tall order for even the most politically adept.
The main focus, however, ought to be that the inter-Korean talks, should they occur, buys time. The talks would not be able to take place with Pyongyang simultaneously shooting missiles in the background. The North Koreans are well aware of this, and they would not have extended this partial olive branch without the willingness to extend the lull in hostilities. This means that it is likely that those talks would again bring a period of inactivity. For the US and its allies, this means time that can be used to further let sanctions seep in and also for them to continue pressuring China and Russia to get on-board.
Of course, given these new developments, the big question now is whether President Moon (should he travel to Pyongyang) will still agree to commence annual joint-military exercises with the US after the Winter Paralympics end on March 18. Moon cannot wait until after the joint exercises to accept the offer, since the renewed exchange of hostilities caused by the drills will have likely killed it. This means that any option that involves President Moon going to Pyongyang would need to be carefully strategized, discussed and coordinated together with the US as it would require further postponement of the annual exercises – something that the US will only agree to if meaningful gains of nuclear disarmament are in sight.
The coming weeks will be critical in setting the trajectory for the rest of the year, if not longer.
Cover Picture: DPRK supporter team at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, © Palsternakka / Wikimedia Commons