BY: ANDY LAUB
North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un surprised the world in his New Year’s Day speech when he extended a diplomatic overture to South Korea expressing his country’s desired participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea next month. For Kim Jong-Un, this was a level-headed and strategic decision for a number of different reasons. In the absence of the United States, the South Korean government’s willingness to open diplomatic relations with North Korea signal a departure from the US’ tack in dealing with North Korea. Furthermore, following the first round of meetings that took place, it is apparent that opening a line of communication with North Korea was an important and positive first step.
First, many were worried that perhaps Kim Jong-Un could use the games as an excuse for another provocative missile or nuclear test given the heightened tensions on the peninsula thus dissuading athletes and fans from participating or attending. Active diplomacy on this front may help people feel better about the safety of the games, which are very important to South Korea’s image globally.
Second, it is no secret that South Korea’s President Moon-Jae In, a progressive who favors dialogue with North Korea, and U.S President Donald Trump, with his bellicose rhetoric, do not see eye to eye. By the North taking the diplomatic initiative with the South, it could potentially drive a larger wedge between the two allies. Following the announcement, the U.S Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley immediately dismissed the talks saying “We won’t take any of the talks seriously if they don’t do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea.” For the United States and the Trump Administration the nuclear issue remains front and center and they will not engage in diplomatic talks with North Korea unless the preconditions of the talks have the end goal of complete denuclearization. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has had to walk back his prior assertions that the United States was willing to talk to North Korea without preconditions. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) went as far as to suggest the United States should boycott the Olympics if North Korea is invited to attend before the talks even started.
Third, Kim Jong-Un chose to send a message, that his country while perceived as the most isolated in the world, can participate in something global which brings people together outside of politics. The move, in his eyes, might help him legitimize himself on the world stage for something outside of his position on nuclear security.
Following President Moon’s acceptance of Kim’s offer, the two sides met at the DMZ village of Panmunjom on January 9th, 2018. The hotline for both sides to talk was reopened after more than two years as both sides came out with an agreement that allowed for North Korea to attend next month’s games. Other important developments that came out of the talks were that both sides agreed to future talks on military and security-related issues as well as more enhanced humanitarian engagement such as continuing family reunions, where family members separated by the Korean War are allowed to visit with one another. In addition, the United States and South Korea also made the decision to suspend their usual military drills during the games that consistently aggravate the North. All of these measures have been positive steps in the right direction, but won’t solve the crisis alone as the key is going to be in the follow-up after the games.
Diplomacy is like a jigsaw puzzle. It works in pieces over longer periods of time. While the nuclear issue remains the most important issue to confront with North Korea, it is productive to start diplomacy on a different note such as humanitarian issues that are easier to resolve while building up trust and goodwill through sustained dialogue. However, it is also important to note that reunions might very well be a tactic employed by North Korea to de-escalate the security situation building up in the region. Not everyone on the South Korean side is satisfied with the decision to let North Korea participate in the Olympics. In particular, the older, more hawkish generation has been weary as they have seen many peace deals like the 1994 Agreed Framework fall apart, giving everyone a false sense of security while North Korea just bides more time to continue building its provocative nuclear program. It is a different time with different leaders and who knows what outcomes are possible with all diplomatic options being exhausted. The United States would be wise to take a similar approach as South Korea has in conducting diplomacy with North Korea with the three detained Americans who remain in a North Korea prison, Tony Kim, Kim-Hak Song and Kim Dong-Chul. It is important they not be forgotten and every effort to secure their release be exhausted in order to start the diplomatic process and focus on greater issues.
Andy Laub is the Director for Partnerships and North Korea Analyst at Political Insights. He also serves as the Membership Director for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Andy received his Master of Science in Global Affairs from New York University.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.