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Pyeongchang 2018: Window of Opportunity

10 January 2018

The 2018 Winter Olympics are due to commence in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month, providing the Korean peninsula with a rare opportunity for constructive dialogue. One of the biggest talking points of the upcoming Games has been the possible participation of North Korea, and the potential ramifications if they do.

After an open invitation to the Games was extended by South Korean President Moon Jae-in last year, the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, announced in his New Year’s Day address that he was open to talks with Seoul and would also consider sending a North Korean team to Pyeongchang. The announcement was a sudden change in tone after a year of increasingly aggressive rhetoric. In response, a hotline was reopened between the North and South after being disabled two years prior. The first high-level talks to take place since December 2015 were then arranged to take place in the border village of Panmunjom in the De-Militarised Zone (DMZ), on Tuesday 09 January 2018. The talks were agreed on the condition that a joint US-South Korean military drill would be delayed until after the Games. During the talks, North Korean officials confirmed intentions to send a delegation to Pyeongyang, cracking open the diplomatic door on the Korean peninsula.

South Korean officials have conveyed further developments from the talks, stating that the North's Olympic delegation will include official delegates, athletes, supporters, art performers, observers, journalists, and a taekwondo demonstration team. The South allegedly made several other proposals to the North, including marching both teams together during the opening ceremony (as they did in 2006); allowing family reunions to take place; and further negotiations on nuclear weapons and other military issues. The North's response to these proposals has not been announced yet. The South also said it will consider coordinating temporary relief of certain sanctions with the UN, to enable the North's participation.

A wedge or an opportunity?

For the US and South Korea, the motive for including North Korea in the Winter Olympic Games is clear: to open an inter-Korean dialogue and mitigate the risk of a full-scale confrontation with a nuclear-armed North Korea. However, the North Korean motive for participating in the Games is more open to interpretation.

The condition in the agreement that US-South Korean military drills must be postponed until after the Games indicates two possibilities. It’s plausible the North’s motive could be to create a wedge between the US and South Korea. Within the last year, the Trump administration has adopted an aggressive isolationist approach to dealing with North Korea, pushing more UN sanctions through and putting increasing amounts of pressure on the North Korean regime to abandon their nuclear programme. While the South Korean authorities have maintained their alliance with the US, they also extended an olive branch by inviting the North to the Games – indicating a desire to engage with the North, rather than isolate it.

An alternative and more sincere motive would be to use the Games as an opportunity to de-escalate military tensions on the Korean peninsula to avoid a military confrontation. However, throughout the last two years, the North has prioritised developing its military and nuclear arsenal above international diplomacy – choosing to ignore UN sanctions in repeated missile tests over the Sea of Japan and threatening to target the US Pacific territory of Guam. A sudden change in priority would be illogical unless their goal was to strengthen their military position – something which has arguably been achieved. It’s possible the North’s rapid build-up of a nuclear arsenal was designed to gain itself a negotiating position at a table otherwise dominated by the US power-state.

In the period leading up to the Games, we have seen a war of words unfold between US President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader in a tumultuous power-play, as both jostles for a bargaining position. While the US seeks to force the North to abandon their nuclear weapons programme, the South is more open to negotiation and the North has no doubt recognised that. From the North Korean perspective, a deal made with South Korea will likely be more favourable with less US input.

Ultimately, the North’s long-term interest lies in finding a peaceful solution to achieving the reunification of Korean land. Korean unity is arguably one of North Korea’s underlying goals as they seek to distance South Korea from the US. The Pyeongchang Games represent an opportunity for the North and South to engage on a mutual level, using their shared culture and heritage as an opening to resolve the nuclear issue, and potentially, the long-term border issue.

What next?

The US and South Korea should be keen to keep the diplomatic door open. North Korea’s participation in the Games indicates the second round of talks is likely to take place, as logistic details will need to be discussed. However, as talks progress, the issues of the North’s nuclear programme and South Korea’s alliance with the US will be increasingly likely to come to a head. The UN Security Council may need to be consulted in order to temporarily lift relevant sanctions to enable the North’s participation – thereby presenting UN nations, including the US, with valuable input. While the US has done well to support the recent progress in inter-Korean dialogue, it will need to lay exchanging personal insults with Kim Jong-un (aka ‘Little Rocket Man’) to rest by reigning in a certain Twitter-happy president and adopting a less isolationist approach. A wrong-turn could see the diplomatic door slam shut and a window of opportunity for peaceful talks may not come around again soon. It’s important all countries involved play their cards carefully, as we’re certainly not out of the woods just yet.