What South Korea is risking in Winter Olympics diplomacy with nuclear North Korea and Kim Jong-un
Donald Kirk says the South Korean president may yearn for reconciliation but he must give priority to defence, as the Olympic message of peace did not win over North Korea in the past and is even more unlikely to do so now
The timing of the Winter Olympics, in the South Korean mountain district of Pyeongchang in February, could not be better – or worse. By hinting at sending a team, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un is exploiting the desire of President Moon Jae-in to turn the Games into a chance for reconciliation. But Kim is sure to drive a hard bargain. At the very least, he’s likely to demand the cancellation of annual military exercises by the US and South Korea.
American military people are not sure how to react. They want to stay on the best of terms with close ally Seoul, but are far from certain if now is a good time to be soft-pedalling exercises, when tensions on the Korean peninsula are at a critical stage, with Kim ready to press “the nuclear button” on his desk at any time.
The fear in the hearts of some South Koreans is that, if the US and South Korea are still playing war games, the North will not only refuse in the end to join in the Olympics but will also stage missile tests, perhaps a seventh nuclear test. One would think Kim’s sudden openness to talks about joining in the Games would rule out any chance of terrorism, but who can forget Korean Air Flight 858, blown up over the Indian Ocean in November 1987, killing all 115 on board, nearly a year before the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics? Might not a display of acquiescence towards North Korea be an invitation to more threats and intimidation?
US President Donald Trump’s new “security strategy” outlines the dangers posed by North Korea and focuses on the need for resolution, if not by diplomacy then by other means. North Korea has denounced his strategy in the usual insulting terms, while declaring that increased UN Security Council sanctions amount to an “an act of war”.
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The sense in Washington is that now is the time for firmness and determination in the face of rising North Korean rhetoric. Just as clearly, Moon thinks that the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, coming nearly 30 years after the Seoul Games, offers an opportunity for reconciliation and dialogue. It would be a diplomatic triumph for Moon if North Korea were to send a team to compete in a spirit of harmony and friendship.
Such thinking, however, is highly flawed. There is no way Moon is going to buy time in this confrontation by playing nice guy on war games with the Americans.
One has only to hark back to the 1988 Seoul Games for evidence that Olympic diplomacy is a myth, a fantasy that will not bring enduring peace. Who can forget the worries as South Korea pleaded with the North to send a team, to host events, to do anything to turn the games into an opportunity for reconciliation.
Incredibly, South Korea, then led by the conservative former general, President Roh Tae-woo, preferred somehow to relegate the bombing of Flight 858 into the background as a historical tragedy, almost an accident, not a deliberate effort to destroy the 1988 Games. Almost until the opening of those Games, hopes remained that North Korea would see them as a chance for dialogue, for goodwill.
The chances for reconciliation in those days were, if anything, brighter than now – for one basic reason. North Korea, while it had a nuclear programme, had yet to explode a nuclear device. The issue of Pyongyang’s pretensions as a nuclear power had not yet arisen. There was still a chance, it seemed, that the Games would advance peace between the two Koreas.
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That dream has long since vanished. It’s fine for Moon to yearn for dialogue, for an end to confrontation, but he should forget about the Olympics advancing the cause of peace and stand fast in demands for North Korea to express willingness to negotiate an end to its nuclear programme. Aside from the 1988 Games, think about the 1936 Berlin Olympics, held as Nazi Germany was persecuting Jews and spreading through Europe. It did nothing to halt Adolf Hitler’s slaughter of millions, including six million Jews.
Moon needs to consider these precedents, as he does whatever he can to turn the Pyeongchang Olympics into a step on the way to inter-Korean peace and goodwill. One way not to achieve that goal is to display weakness and agree to abandon annual military exercises crucial to the defence of the South.
Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea