It started with a surprisingly – indeed, shockingly – conciliatory broadcast from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Now, some in South Korea are calling the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics “the Pyongyang Games.”
Following 2017’s soaring nuclear tensions and rhetorical conflict between Washington and Pyongyang, the news that North Korea would participate in the Winter Olympics electrified the world. Since then, developments have proceeded at warp speed. Observers are now torn between feverish hopes for some kind of a breakthrough, and weary cynicism that we have seen it all before.
While credible rumors circulating in the South suggest that North Korea’s inclusion in the Games was, in fact, initiated by South Korea – during secret talks with North Korean officials in China – it is North that has been dominating headlines, both on the peninsula and globally. And it is North Korean officials who labelled, splendidly, the country’s appearance at Pyeonchang a “New Year’s gift” to the Korean people.
What are the hardline, insulated, ultra-nationalist, semi-socialist, dictatorial, nuclear-armed neo-monarchy’s goals during, and after, the Winter Olympics?
Pyongyang’s aims in Pyeonchang
To a world largely familiar with North Korea through TV footage of military parades, missile launches and Kim acting regally, the assets Pyongyang will deploy in the South present an unusual face of North Korea. “We focus on belligerence and weapons testing, but this soft power is the power of attraction that appeals to certain segments of South Korean society,” says Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University, indicating that a key aim is to win over South Korean public opinion.
Some North Korea watchers fear Seoul’s leadership will be overly responsive to the North’s PR activities. “The North’s ideology has a voracious hunger for propaganda, and Moon’s government is playing right into its hands, desperate to believe in the North’s good intentions,” says Craig Urquhart, a graduate student at the University of Toronto specializing in the political structure of North Korea. “North Korea acts the besieged victim – in this case to pretend it’s the true champion of the greater Korean nation.”
North Korean has no ties to America and, unlike South Korea – with its global cities and a multicultural rural hinterland that is home to hundreds of thousands of “mail order brides” from Southeast Asia and elsewhere – it remains an ethnically homogenous nation. “Its ideological legitimacy rests on mobilizing ethno-racial nationalism, acting as the uncontaminated, ‘real’ Korea,” Urquhart says.
Pyongyang’s messages to “all Koreans” have had recent airings. “Kim’s long-term goal is the same as his father’s and grandfather’s, and that is to dominate the Korean Peninsula,” says Tara O, author of ‘The Collapse of North Korea.’ “He reiterated this goal clearly in his New Year’s Day address, as well as via the Korea Central News Agency on January 24, both appealing to Koreans everywhere. ‘Independent reunification’ in the KCNA article means ‘no US.’”
A key reason for pushing cross-border ethnic fraternity is to lever South Korea away from the racially and geographically distant United States. “In terms of strategic goals, I think they are probing to see if there is any daylight between the Trump and Moon administrations that they might be able to exploit,” says Abrahamian. That is something North Korea is well practiced at. “The Northern leaders are patient, well-informed masters at playing outsiders against each other,” says Urquhart.
“The North’s ideology has a voracious hunger for propaganda, and Moon’s government is playing right into its hands, desperate to believe in the North’s good intentions”
Short-term, Pyongyang’s goal is more likely to be halting, postponing or reducing in scale springtime South Korean-US military drills – customarily the tensest time on the peninsula’s calendar. “North Korea will attempt to postpone or suspend any joint military drills, even after the Olympics,” says Chung Ku-youn, of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “They will argue that such joint military drills escalate the military tensions on the Korean peninsula, which would be detrimental to reopen dialogue between two Koreas.”
Yet Pyongyang’s legendary craftiness may be overstated. “There is a meme of an evil genius in Pyongyang, and the opposite of that, a gullible, weak and naïve democracy in the South,” says Park So-keel of the defector-focused NGO, Liberty in North Korea. “There is a strong tendency to underestimate the South Korean government and people.”
Thus far, the alliance is standing firm. As reported by Yonhap newswire, Seoul’s defense ministry spokesman said on January 26 that the annual drills would be taking place as usual. The Winter Paralympics close on March 18. “I think President Moon has been very astute at saying the right things about the alliance and the North Korean nuclear program,” says Andray Abrahamian, a visiting fellow at the Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think he is a clever enough politician to know that it is a risk to wander too far away from Washington on strategic issues.”
While some believe that Pyongyang may be seeking economic gains from South Korea, or to re-open closed North-South economic cooperation projects, experts with inside insights are wary. “There is now pride in North Korea that they no longer need aid,” says Park of LINK, noting that marketization has upgraded economic efficiency nationwide. “And South Korea is much more severely restricted [in terms of economic cooperation with the North] because of UN Security Council resolutions.”
Meanwhile, Kim’s propaganda efforts are also focused on targets other than South Korea. “Propaganda messaging has different audiences and one is domestic, in North Korea,” says Troy University’s Pinkston said. “Just as the South Korean president has [constitutional] obligations to seek the unification of Korea, so does the North Korean leader.” He added that Kim’s Olympic PR campaign will also “get the Chinese off their backs” – Beijing has been taking an increasingly dim view of Pyongyang’s nuclear program – and promote a more positive image of North Korea internationally.
Can North Korea bewitch South Korea?
For all the current hoopla, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics is not the first time that North and South have fielded joint sports teams, or marched under a unified flag. The two countries fielded joint youth soccer and ping pong teams in the 1990s and jointly marched into stadia at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympic and 2006 Winter Olympics.
Given that none of these symbolic efforts bridged the two Koreas’ ideological and strategic chasms, the extent to which South Koreans are ready to beguiled remains unclear. After all, a decade of engagement under the ‘Sunshine Policy’ implemented by liberal administrations in Seoul from 1997-2008 failed to produce any long-term outcomes.
“You probably have a friend in an off-again, on-again relationship, who, when you meet, has just had a fight or has just got back together,” says Park, comparing the two Koreas to a troubled couple. “You don’t get excited about either end – it is a cycle they go through.”
Seoul may be keener than its citizenry. “Polls suggest the majority of South Koreans aren’t fooled, but it remains to be seen how jittery or credulous the Moon administration is,” says Urquhart. “Instead of naively hoping Pyongyang will come around, Moon should remember that engaging North Korea on its terms always changes the engager, never North Korea.”
The Moon government – which until recently displayed a sure touch in terms of gauging public opinion – may have misjudged attitudes toward inter-Korean reconciliation. A poll by Real Meter last Thursday found Moon’s approval ratings had dropped to 59.8% – the first sub-60% rating of his tenure, as reported by the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, and a fall of six percentage points in the space of a week.
There has been public criticism of the joint women’s ice hockey team, with complaints that South Korean players will lose their chance for Olympic glory due to a last-minute influx of North Korean players. And polls suggest only 40% of South Koreans favor a unified flag.
One reason the administration is so keen to accelerate engagement is its limited window of opportunity. “There is too much hype and hope; a better approach might be to temper expectations,” says Park. “The difficulty for Moon is he has a five-year [electoral] time frame, while North Korea and China play a much longer game.”
Abrahamian adds: “I think this is going to be a learning experience for elements in Pyongyang and even in the Moon administration which think that South Korea’s public are as they were in the late 1990s. I think there is a little more cynicism and less interest in the North and the tragedy of the divided Korean people: People on the left in South Korea and up North may be in for a surprise.”
Or, perhaps not. South Korean media went giddy last week over the visit of the glamorous Hyon Song-wol – a leading figure in Pyongyang’s elite Mansundae Art Troupe, which oversees popular entertainers and orchestras, and also, bizarre as it may seem, a colonel in the North Korean army. Her motorcade received the kind of escorts usually reserved for visiting heads of state.
And during the Games, Pyongyang will be turning up the charm to the max.
Besides a small sporting contingent of 22 athletes, the entourage North Korea is dispatching South seems designed to appeal to as diverse an audience as possible. Pyeongyang’s cheering squad, dubbed the ‘Army of Beauties’ has, on past appearances, been a hit among the South’s male population, perhaps in light of the commonly stated belief (among South Korean men, at least) that Southern men are more handsome, while Northern women are more beautiful. An orchestra will provide proof of the North’s sophisticated cultural assets, and a taekwondo demonstration team will offer a display of Korean machismo.
Pyongyang’s long-term gameplan
The North Korean charm offensive toward the South may be sustained – as an attempt to somehow ameliorate the strength of the South Korean-US military alliance. “When war is too costly and you cannot initiate unilateral military action, you are locked into other things,” Pinkston says. “So the charm offensive and soft power and competition over ideology and these kinds of things demonstrate that your culture is superior.”
However much goodwill is generated during the Olympiad, though, outcomes are likely to be no more substantive than reunions of divided families, and continued talks. And in talks, there is limited common ground: during the first high-level negotiation in the current cycle, Pyongyang’s representative bristled when the Southern delegation gingerly raised the issue of denuclearization. “They are stepping into a process with objectives that are mutually exclusive,” says Pinkston of the two Koreas. “There is not that convergence of goals.”
The eventual goal, which three generations of Kims have placed front and center in their propaganda efforts, is reunification – on the North’s terms. This explains Pyongyang’s recent messaging. “Just as the South Korean president has [constitutional] obligations to seek the unification of Korea, so does the North Korean leader,” Pinkston says.
One question which is unanswerable – given the lack of human intelligence inside the Kim regime – is whether North Korea’s elite truly believe their own propaganda regarding unification.
Scholars are divided over the issue. Urquhart argues that Pyongyang’s goal of reunification – possibly to be achieved via a gradual process of discussions, confederation and takeover rather than outright invasion – is unchanged.
“Pyongyang will never agree to denuclearization because it now has the leverage to push its long-term goals,” says Urquhart. “If South Korea is eventually fooled or cowed, Pyongyang will precisely calibrate its interactions to cajole Seoul into some loose variety of ‘unification’ that guarantees one-way Northern access to the South’s political system and money.”
Abrahamian is skeptical. “I think Pyongyang’s leaders realize that trying to take over the South will present greater risks to their system than to the southern system,” he counters.” I think a lot of people in leadership in Pyongyang realize that trying to govern the south and hold on to their privileges is impossible, so I think there is a lot of inertia behind their rhetoric about unification.”
So enjoy the Winter Olympics. On a peninsula divided since 1945, no significantly positive outcome looks imminent in 2018.