The well-run Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, with all its splendor and beauty, brought hope for peace among nations, with the North and South Korean athletes marching together with joint flag-bearers.
This dovetailed with the North’s recent charm offensive toward the South, which many analysts believe is part of Pyongyang’s efforts to bargain for sanctions relief and to buy time while it continues to advance its nuclear-weapons program.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his administration must keep a level head amid the celebratory mood of the Games and the rapidly unfolding campaign of flattery coming from North Korea.
Along these lines, some could not help but find irony in the opening ceremony given that the last time South Korea hosted the Olympics, in Seoul in 1988, the North did what it could to obstruct preparation for the Summer Games by having its agents blow up Korean Air Flight 858 in November 1987, killing everyone on board.
Also contributing to the irony this month was North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s military parade in Pyongyang on the eve of the Olympics, as well as a barrage of nuclear tests and missile launches in recent years replete with threats to destroy South Korea, Japan and the United States.
Yet there the North Koreans were at the February 9 opening ceremony – athletes, musicians and cheerleaders – basking in the limelight, however undeserved, with North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong-nam, waving from the stands.
Playing on these good vibes was Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-un and the first member of the Kim family dynasty ever to visit the South. She attended the Games’ opening ceremony as her brother’s “special envoy.”
During her visit, she extended an official invitation from her brother to President Moon over lunch at the South Korean Presidential Blue House in Seoul.
Self-assured and attractive, Kim Yo-jong’s impressive skills as the director of North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department were on full display. She was a master charmer during her visit and the South Korean and international media were intrigued by the “First Sister” and covered her every move and utterance.
Kim Yo-jong’s visit can justifiably be viewed as a triumph for Pyongyang as she put an amiable and elegant face on the murderous regime on whose politburo she sits. She also met with President Moon on four separate high-profile occasions during her three-day visit – an uncommon honor that is rarely bestowed upon foreign dignitaries – and, furthermore, Moon “virtually accepted” Kim Jong-un’s invitation to Pyongyang.
Moon is understandably determined to host a successful Olympics and to do what he can to prevent the North from creating an embarrassing incident during the Games. South Korean citizens expect as such, and nobody can fault him for this.
Moon is also intent on using the Games as a vehicle to begin talks with the North over its nuclear program as a way to demonstrate to the world that negotiations, not just the sword, have an important part to play in relations with the Kim regime.
This is to be expected, as it is part of his commitment to South Korean voters to pursue diplomacy and participate in a summit with the North if it contributes to solving the nuclear crisis.
Without clear and verifiable steps by Pyongyang to denuclearize, Seoul must not let up on the pressure and sanctions that many have worked hard to implement during this crisis
Yet amid the North’s flattery and the warm glow that hosting the Olympics brings, Moon must be clear-eyed and sober in his dealings with Pyongyang. Without clear and verifiable steps by Pyongyang to denuclearize, Seoul must not let up on the pressure and sanctions that many have worked hard to implement during this crisis.
Steps short of this simply allow the North Koreans the added time to advance their nuclear-weapons programs.
During the upcoming discussions with the North, Moon and his administration would be well served to take the following into consideration.
First, after agreeing to postpone their yearly spring military exercises until after the Olympics as a way to de-escalate tensions with the North, South Korea and the US need to commence their military exercises immediately after the Games regardless of any plans for an upcoming Moon-Kim summit.
Second, Washington and Seoul need to coordinate closely on shaping the discussions of an inter-Korean summit. The discussions need to assert the need for denuclearization as being the focus of peace talks and of the importance of joint US-South Korea military exercises for purposes of stability.
Third, Seoul must have no illusions about the deceitful nature of the Kim regime and its long history of cheating and reneging unilaterally on agreements while seeking to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. Two examples are the other inter-Korea summits with Kim Jong-un’s father in 2000 and 2007 that yielded little and took place during the regime’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Fourth, As 2017 and 2018 sanctions against Pyongyang are beginning to bite, Washington and Seoul must be prepared for any efforts by Kim to weaken vulnerable areas in their joint efforts against the regime. This includes attempts by Kim to lessen or waive altogether sanctions against his government.
US President Donald Trump’s personal attacks against Kim, warnings of “fire and fury” and threats of a “bloody nose” strategy of conducting a limited military strike against North Korea are known to have given Moon many a case of heartburn. Although overstated in the press, the two men have had diverging views as to how to resolve the nuclear crisis. While tensions in alliances are not uncommon, Trump and Moon must commit to working together on a way forward.
Trump’s unconventional rhetoric is not a reason for Seoul to question its alliance with Washington, but, rather, it is the Trump administration’s policies that matter. The scenario painted by some of Seoul deciding to pursue its own foreign policy or taking Trump’s lead and risking a fateful, end-of-days war on the Korean Peninsula is both mistaken and a false choice.
The Trump administration’s actions vis-a-vis security in the Asia-Pacific region – deepening the US-Japan alliance, enhancing US capabilities in the region, strengthening ties with partners and boosting military cooperation with regional states – is conventional by the standards of many US presidents and ought to give Seoul the peace of mind that it is committed to the security of the peninsula.
Finally, consideration must be given to Pyongyang’s core interests and how to use them as leverage against the regime to exact concessions on its nuclear-weapons program and changes to its abusive human-rights practices, among other areas.
The overriding concern of Kim is the survival of the family dynasty. Other interrelated concerns are securing a credible nuclear deterrence against the US homeland; co-opting the military to prevent a coup; securing a steady flow of hard currency, fuel and food; making headway against the North’s deteriorating conventional arms race against South Korea and Japan; and improving the regime’s prestige overseas.
As with all Olympiads, the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are making their own history and abound with inspiring accounts of overcoming challenges, redemption and magnanimity. President Moon has done a wonderful job of being its patron. He mustn’t fall for Pyongyang’s ploys of using the Games to curry favor for sanctions relief and buying time to develop its nuclear-weapons program further.