Analysis of the Olympic Détente and post-PyeongChang By Jun Kwon and Sung Jang
There is a clear sign that the Olympic Détente is underway between the two Koreas as the 23rd Winter Olympics got started in PyeongChang, South Korea on Friday. Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un was sitting and greeting with President Moon of South Korea at the opening ceremony as the South and North Korean athletes marched under one flag. Kim Yo Jong also subsequently met with President Moon at the presidential Blue House where she delivered her brother’s personal letter and conveyed the verbal invitation to President Moon to visit the North soon for a summit meeting.
This thawing of relations between the Koreas were somewhat anticipated when Kim Jong Un stated at the New Year’s address that “as for the Winter Olympic Games to be held soon in South Korea, it will serve as a good occasion for demonstrating our nation’s prestige and we earnestly wish the Olympic Games a success…We should improve the frozen inter-Korean relations…We should work together to ease the acute military tension between the north and the south and create a peaceful environment on the Korean peninsula.”
The Olympic peace is a welcome reprieve from years of tensions on the Korean peninsula. Two questions resulting questions are: 1) Why has North Korea chosen this specific moment to extend the olive branch to the South after ten years of tensions? 2) What is the prospect of this warm climate of the intra-Korean reconciliations paving the way for further engagement and talks on the most underlying issue, denuclearization of North Korea?
Conservative pundits in the U.S. and South Korea provide two explanations on the sudden changes of the North Korean behaviors. One explanation is that maximum pressure, including severe economic sanctions by the international community, is working at last. North Korea is finally giving up its aggressive policies because economic conditions are reaching to the level of unendurable situation.
The other explanation is that reconciliatory overtures of the Kim regime are a wicked strategy to drive a wedge in the U.S.-South Korea alliance. There are tendencies that hardliners against North Korea would be wary of any displays of affection or warmth that North Korea exudes. These two explanations are wrong.
There is no doubt that the economic conditions of North Korea are bad enough. Yet, it has developed collective tactics and strategies of self-sustenance. Despite the international effort to impose economic sanctions, they have not been implemented in any meaningful way.
In addition, the legitimacy of Kim's regime is not based on economic performance and its survival is not directly linked to its performance to satisfy people’s needs. Instead, Kim’s regime is founded on ideological grounds. The regime is sustained by ideological indoctrination based on pathological nationalism, not its ability to provide material satisfaction to its people.
There are signs of ups and downs in the relationship between Washington and Seoul in taking different approaches to North Korea. Still, North Korea knows that the seven decade U.S.-South Korea alliance is strong. And there is no gains for North Korea in driving a wedge in the U.S.-South Korea coordination in their North Korean policies.
The recent changes of North Korean behavior are attributed to three explanations. First, one should understand that the North Korean regime always behaves according to its own timetable. It has consistently argued that it will not come out to the negotiation table until it achieves two major goals; ICBMs that are able to reach the U.S. mainland and nuclear warheads (hydrogen bombs) small and light enough to be mounted on ICBMs.
North Korea has now developed the technology to create rockets that could potentially be mounted with nuclear warheads to hit the United States’ mainland. With this achievement, the North now has increased confidence and prestige to ensure its regime survival.
Sending Ms. Kim to the South may be a signal from North Korea to the United States that North Korea is ready to negotiate with the U.S. from a position of power, not inferiority. With nuclear weapons that could pose a more realistic threat to the United States, North Korea may now feel that negotiations and deals with the U.S. would be better assured because the power balance is less asymmetrical (despite the fact that the United States is still a much larger power in all measures). Furthermore, the confidence of the Kim regime has perhaps solidified due to the fact that his nuclear weapons are now a failsafe to his survival.
Second, there is no doubt that the Olympic rapprochement is the result of President Moon’s persistent outreach effort to ease tensions and to create peaceful environment on the Korean peninsula. Warming of relations between North Korea and South Korea have happened in the past. A good example is the cooperation between the South and the North during the Sunshine Policy years (1998-2008).
This prolonged period of rapprochement between the two Koreas led to various levels of governmental and civilian exchanges, including the Kaesong Industrial Complex and a handful of Korean family reunions. However, this did not prevent North Korea from having its first nuclear detonation in 2006. The Sunshine Policy was eventually declared a failure by conservative President Lee in 2010.
Historically speaking, relations have always soured under conservative administrations such as that of President Lee’s (2008-2013) and President Park’s (2013-2017) as their political backings and leanings are deeply tied to the military industrial complex of the present day and from the days of the Cold War. If President Park was not impeached, she would have been the President at the time of the opening of the Olympics. The high level delegation from North Korean and ensuing thawing relations would have been impossible to imagine.
On the other hand, Moon and his liberal predecessors have backgrounds as human rights protestors during the years of military dictatorship in South Korea. President Moon, like his liberal predecessors, favors a softer stance (akin to the Sunshine Policy adopted under President Kim Dae-jung) toward North Korea and has touted that cooperation, not confrontation, as the way to make a progress on the permanent peace.
It is possible that North Korea believes that the Moon administration in the South is now friendly enough to act as a mediator between the Kim regime and the United States. Hence, the different approaches to North Korea, even though they might be slight, may be the reason why North Korea has been more eager to mend its relations with the South.
Third, ever since the presidency of Donald Trump began, the United States has suffered some public relations damage. While the United States has for long been touted as the leader of an increasingly globalized world, that mantle has now symbolically been given to China in the World Economic Forum in 2017.
Furthermore, Donald Trump’s economic nationalism has not been well received by America’s allies overseas, such as the American withdrawal from the Paris Agreement at COP21 and Trump's announcement of “America First” tariff barriers on imports from South Korean and Japan.
North Korea may see this crack in America’s previously impenetrable prestige internationally as an opportunity to bolster its image to other states. With America’s prestige possibly on the decline, and Donald Trump’s tendency to put his allies in difficult positions with his statements, North Korea may effectively be trying to defy the American strategy of isolating hostile states through forcing its regional allies to rely on it for defense.
Considering the factors that are mentioned above, it seems that North Korea is ready to engage in a dialogue. All that remains is the response from the American side of the table. In order for this thawing of relations not to be temporary, but to be long-term after PyeongChang, the United States has to make an effort to open and maintain a dialogue with North Korea.
The first litmus test of a possible diplomatic negotiation would be joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korea, which are now temporarily postponed due to the Winter Olympics. If the U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises are resumed (or not scaled back) right after the end of the Olympics, it would likely have negative impact on potential negotiations.
In this regard, the role of President Moon in this triangular relationship is becoming more important than ever before. There is no doubt that President Moon is in a position of a daunting challenge. The success of a long-term stability and peace on the Korean peninsula hinges on President Moon’s political and diplomatic capability to strike a balance between bringing North Korea to the negotiation table and convincing the U.S. which demands that South Korea should disengage with the Kim regime unless it shows meaningful changes of actions on its nuclear ambitions.
Jun Kwon is Chair of International Studies and Assistant Professor of Government at Utica College. Sung Jang is government student at Utica College.