Winter Olympics a ‘chance to get US-North Korea talks rolling and avert catastrophe’
Beijing should push ahead and help broker a deal between Pyongyang and Washington, international think tank says
The Winter Olympics in South Korea could be a chance for Washington and Pyongyang to start talking, with the world running out of peaceful answers to the crisis on the Korean peninsula, a top international think tank says.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report on Tuesday that China had suggested that the United States freeze miliary exercises in the region in exchange for North Korea suspending its nuclear weapons programme, and Beijing should push ahead and help broker a deal between Pyongyang and Washington based on the proposal.
It said the chance of a cataclysmic war in the region was higher than at any time in recent history as US President Donald Trump applied a “maximum pressure” policy to counter North Korea’s repeated nuclear provocations.
North Korea’s relations with China, Pyongyang’s top trade and diplomatic ally, have plunged as Beijing has supported a series of United Nations sanctions against North Korea and edged closer to Trump’s position.
The release of the ICG’s report comes after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to open dialogue with the South for the first time in over two years.
Kim also agreed to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics next month. The two teams will walk into the opening ceremony together and athletes from both countries will form a unified women’s ice hockey team.
The report said the White House’s “maximum pressure” strategy of using economic and trade sanctions and military threats would not force Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal, which the Pyongyang regime deemed essential for its survival.
“Its first track, economic pressure through sanctions, will not, on its own, prompt Pyongyang to slow down its weapons programme with a reasonable time frame, and could cause considerable harm to its people,” it said. “The second, threatening or, worse, carrying out military action, risks uncontrolled escalation.”
The group said the US should instead use the Winter Olympics and Pyongyang’s desperation to improve its shattered economy to explore resuming formal US-North Korea talks.
And Beijing should use incentives and pressure to bring Washington and Pyongyang back to the negotiating table, it said.
Michael Kovrig, the group’s senior adviser for North East Asia and a co-author of the report, said this strategy could help to save the region from catastrophic miscalculations that would not only affect both Koreas but other powers including China, Japan, Russia and even the US.
“The window ahead of the Winter Olympics, thawing North Korea-South Korea relations and Pyongyang’s desire to shore up its economy provides an opportunity,” Kovrig said. “A deal whereby Pyongyang freezes its most sensitive tests and Washington freezes some military exercises could help de-escalate the crisis and buy time for diplomacy.”
But observers voiced concerns that tensions could flare up again soon after the Olympics, especially if Pyongyang and Seoul did not address the question of nuclear disarmament.
Washington and Pyongyang have also both rejected Beijing’s “freeze for freeze” proposal and analysts doubted whether either would be willing to tone down their rhetoric and return to talks, especially when Kim had little incentive to scrap his nuclear programme.
Lu Chao, a Korean affairs expert at the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences, said “things will not be easy” after the Olympics.
“I think the Winter Olympics is a good opportunity and China will be helping given denuclearisation is also a goal for Beijing, but such hopes [of an eventual de-escalation] should not be overestimated as neither side has raised the question of denuclearisation or the suspension of Washington-led military exercises,” Lu said.