An enduring bromide about the Olympic Games holds that they provide a respite from politics. That has been a fiction since at least 424 B.C., when Sparta, fighting Athens in the Peloponnesian War, was barred from the Olympiad. In the modern age, it has ...
An enduring bromide about the Olympic Games holds that they provide a respite from politics. That has been a fiction since at least 424 B.C., when Sparta, fighting Athens in the Peloponnesian War, was barred from the Olympiad. In the modern age, it has remained thus. As Seoul prepared to host the 1988 Summer Games, Pyongyang tried to scare the world away by detonating a time bomb on a South Korean passenger jet, killing all hundred and fifteen people onboard. Two spies who planted the bomb were caught, and swallowed cyanide, but one survived. She revealed that the attack had been ordered, in a handwritten directive, by Kim Jong Il, the heir apparent to the nation’s founder.
The Games have returned to South Korea at another moment of acute anxiety, with the potential for hostilities between the two nations at a level rarely seen since the Korean War ended, in 1953. The North Korean regime, now led by Kim’s son, the thirty-four-year-old Kim Jong Un, is still violent, unpredictable, and isolated, but, this time, it did not try to stop the Games. Instead, it adopted a more sophisticated strategy: a diplomatic play, with a fragile potential to defuse the confrontation.
For months, experts on North Korea have suspected that Kim might switch course, from confronting the United States and South Korea to playing on tensions between them. In a New Year’s Day speech, after months of flouting international condemnation of his development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, Kim surprised his adversaries by proposing talks about sending a North Korean delegation to the Games. The two nations restored a military hotline and agreed to field a joint women’s ice-hockey team. Kim’s gambit was calculated to appeal to South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, an ardent proponent of engagement. Moon hailed the deal as a breakthrough, saying, “Many considered it an impossible dream to have an Olympics of peace, in which North Korea would participate and the two Koreas would form a joint team.”
The South Korean people, however, are less sanguine. Many older citizens, whose families were riven by the war, long for reunification, but younger people, with no memory of an undivided Korea, tend to regard the North as a bizarre embarrassment. Having grown up under Pyongyang’s threats to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” they worry that, even under the best of circumstances, reuniting with an impoverished dictatorship could hobble South Korea’s economy. According to the Korea Institute for National Unification, a think tank based in Seoul, sixty per cent of South Koreans in their twenties oppose reunification.
In the first encounter of the new diplomacy, Kim deployed an unexpected tactic: he sent his powerful and reclusive younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the Games, where she caught the United States off balance. She posed with Moon for photographs, and invited him to a summit “at his earliest convenience” in Pyongyang. He did not formally accept, but he came close, saying, “Let’s create the environment for that to be able to happen.”
Vice-President Mike Pence, representing the United States, was a step behind. He ignored Kim, and refused to stand when the North and South Korean athletes entered the stadium together at the opening ceremony. Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, considered that approach “wrong-footed.” Pence’s allies complained that the media was swooning over Kim—CNN tweeted that she was “stealing the show.” But, Drezner wrote in the Washington Post, “it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that Mike Pence had a bad weekend.”
Then, as Pence headed back to the United States, last Monday, the Trump Administration, too, abruptly changed course. With the inter-Korean overtures gaining strength, and Washington risking a breach of its alliance with Seoul, the White House said that it was now willing to join preliminary talks with North Korea. That’s encouraging: they would present the first possibility of substantive progress since a failed round of “exploratory” talks between Washington and Pyongyang in February, 2012.
But the Olympic rapprochement does not likely herald an imminent end to the crisis. John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University, in Seoul, who has advocated for talks, said, “Moon succeeded in making the Olympics safe and positive, but he has always been clear that the goal was to change the atmosphere and start a dialogue. They have to sustain this momentum and bridge the gap between inter-Korean détente and the United States. It’s a big test, and, if it fails, it makes it easier for others to say, ‘We tried talks and they didn’t work.’ ” Last Tuesday, the chiefs of the U.S. security agencies told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Olympics had not changed their assessment. Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence, said, “The decision time is becoming ever closer in terms of how we respond” to North Korea’s weapons development.
If Moon does accept Kim’s invitation, the talks could take place as soon as this summer. (A poll published last Thursday, by the Yonhap news agency, found that sixty per cent of South Koreans support a summit.) American and South Korean experts believe that North Korea remains unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons, but could, in time, be persuaded to limit further production and allow inspectors to return. The most plausible early deal could involve a suspension of joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea, which Pyongyang considers a rehearsal for invasion, in exchange for a halt to weapons tests. But, in the months ahead, the chances of derailment are significant. Washington and Seoul have agreed to postpone any exercises until after the Paralympic Games end, in March; if they resume, Kim Jong Un could respond with more missile launches. If he moves to follow through on threats to test a nuclear device over the Pacific, the White House could try to prevent it with a limited strike, a strategy that carries extraordinary risks of escalation. President Trump, for his part, also could end the rapprochement with a tweet.
Nevertheless, for all the doubts surrounding the Olympic thaw, history suggests that it would be wrong to dismiss this moment. In the nineteen-seventies, Ping-Pong diplomacy helped rebuild ties between the United States and China; in recent years, wrestling competitions have afforded the United States and Iran a basis for communication. “Sport,” George Orwell wrote in 1945, “is war minus the shooting.” In South Korea this week, that, at least, is something to cheer. ♦
2018 winter olympics,north korea,south korea,moon jae in,kim jong un