South Korean president’s Winter Olympics peace dream faces flak from all sides
Haeyoon Kim says between a planned North Korean military parade, ‘bloody nose’ talk in the US and unimpressed South Korean voters, Moon Jae-in’s Olympic gambit is proving anything but peaceful
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, host of the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, must have spent the first month of the New Year feeling ambivalent. None of his Olympics-based initiatives seem to be bringing the peace he has talked about.
Moon initiated his peace drive by inviting North Korea to participate in the Games. His intent was heard loudest at the United Nations General Assembly last September, when he delivered a keynote speech, pledging, “I will make wholehearted endeavours until the end in cooperation with the International Olympic Committee in order to welcome the North Koreans to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics”. IOC President Thomas Bach chimed in, promising to cover the North Korean athletes’ expenses if they joined the Games. Thanks to these efforts, Kim Jong-un, leader of the communist state, gave the long-awaited “yes” to participation at Pyeongchang, leading to the first inter-Korean talks in almost two years. The IOC announced it would approve of a total of 46 people, composed of 22 athletes and 24 officials (47 North Korean representatives landed in South Korea, the identity of the extra member not yet confirmed).
However, Moon’s wishful thinking, reckoning that the international event could be used as a springboard to talks with the stubborn North and expand an opportunity to bring about a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, hardly seems feasible now. US President Donald Trump, during his first state-of-the-union address last week, said, “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation. I will not repeat the mistakes of the past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”
On the same day, The Washington Post broke the news that Trump’s presumed first pick to be the US ambassador to Seoul, Victor Cha, had dropped out in the final stage of the nomination process as he reportedly expressed his opposition to Trump’s preference for a “bloody nose” attack on Pyongyang. Cha revealed his stance on the matter through The Post’s opinion section, writing that “the answer is not, as some Trump administration officials have suggested, a preventive military strike”, as this would cost hundreds, if not thousands, of American lives.
This can be interpreted as Washington’s plans to nominate someone who supports military action against the North. Trump’s decision to drop Cha was taken as proof, at least in the international policy community, of escalating tensions between the US and North Korea, two parties governed by temperamental leaders. Furthermore, recent comments made by US Air Force General Paul J. Selva, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the US military is confident that it can, if necessary, destroy most of Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities, seemingly support the feasibility of the scenario.
Adding fuel to the fire, North Korea plans to push forward with a military parade to celebrate the founding of its military on February 8, just one day before the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Games. South Korea’s unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, expressed concern about the parade being “threatening”. However, the North’s Samjiyon Orchestra also plans to put on a performance on the same day in Gangneung, where all the Olympic ice sport competitions are to take place. This is a clear message from Kim Jong-un that the North’s participation in the Games doesn’t mean anything more, and can’t be stretched further down the road to the denuclearisation Moon wishes to achieve.
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A Gallup Korea poll in late January showed that Moon, who has enjoyed approval ratings of over 70 per cent since he took office less than a year ago, recently faced a sudden drop to 64 per cent as key supporters, those in their 20s and 30s, showed disappointment with the South Korean government’s decision to field a joint women’s ice hockey team. The figure indicates that some of Moon’s core values touching the hearts of many young South Koreans – “opportunity will be equal, the process will be fair, the result will be righteous” – was damaged by having unqualified North Korean athletes admitted to the Games at the last minute. The decision demanded a sacrifice from South Korean hockey players, costing Moon some of his support.
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On top of all that, Moon has been dealing with critics from the nation’s main opposition party, who say that because of his favouritism towards the communist state, the Pyeongchang Olympic Games are turning into the “Pyongyang Olympic Games”. When the North’s inspection team, led by Pyongyang’s popular singer Hyon Song-wol, visited the South before dispatching its athletes, South Korea’s right-wing and anti-North protesters went so far as to tear and burn the North Korean flag and Kim Jong-un’s portrait at Seoul Station, a major rail hub in the heart of the capital. Meanwhile, South Korean right-wing papers are blasting the Moon administration’s potential violation of UN sanctions against North Korea; The Chosun newspaper wrote that South Korea, as of January 1, has already spent over 250 million won (US$230,000), including a 90-million-won charter plane, to financially support the North’s participation.
As Moon’s ambition is challenged both from outside and within, forcing him to play moderator by easing the tension surrounding the Korean peninsula and dealing with unexpected blowback in Seoul, all eyes are on what might happen after this “temporary” peace.
Haeyoon Kim is a freelance writer/journalist based in Seoul, South Korea and also serves as a translation coordinator at the Asian American Journalists Association, Seoul