The recently finished 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea took place amidst some of the highest tensions in years around North Korea’s nuclear program. It comes as no surprise that the games would be—and were—about far more than sports, particularly after North Korea’s participation went from lofty goal to reality. The two Korea’s may have marched in under a unified flag at the opening ceremony, but with the Olympics finally over, it’s important to bear in mind that whatever progress the games may have spurred, the real test begins now: will the contacts that the games facilitated actually lead anywhere?
Only time will tell. On the one hand, the U.S. announcement of additional sanctions against individuals and entities said to be aiding North Korea in evading sanctions on February 23 was a reminder that in many ways, the status quo remains. The U.S. sees North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as unacceptable, and at the time of writing, sticks to its line that any negotiations must ultimately involve North Korea disbanding the program.
On the other hand, North Korean officials signaled after meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in before the Olympics closing ceremony on February 25 that it is willing to talk to the U.S. This message contradicted much of what North Korean media and officials have been saying for the past few months, both in words and in action: North Korea cancelled a planned meeting between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and the North Korean delegation to the opening ceremony, led by Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong, at the last minute. It is difficult to escape the impression that, for now, North Korea holds the initiative over both South Korea and the U.S.
On the whole, how did the Olympics pan out politically for North Korea? Some feared it would be a propaganda coup, while others were hopeful of diplomatic progress. Below is an attempt at a balance sheet:
North Korea succeeded in making the so-called “wedge” between South Korea and the U.S. visible, but it shouldn’t be credited with creating it in the first place. What this “wedge” means is often not spelled out by those who talk about it. In practice, the idea of North Korea driving a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea refers to North Korea taking actions that force either the U.S. or South Korea to make choices that one of the allies disagrees with.
Mike Pence refused to stand up in the VIP box when the inter-Korean Olympic troop marched in during the opening ceremony, while South Korea’s President Moon met and posed for photographs with Kim Yo-jong. Such occurrences may have been symbolically important, but they only reveal an already-established fact: South Korea and the U.S. have policy differences on how to approach the North Korean nuclear issue. North Korea did not create this difference, but its participation in the Olympics made the difference between the aforementioned allies all the more apparent.
North Korea may have won a PR-victory of sorts through the Olympics, but it might not matter that much. Much has been made of the way that international media reported on Kim Yo-jong, for example, sometimes treating her more like a visiting member of a foreign royal family rather than a representative of a repressive dictatorship.
Some of the criticism has been overblown, but it’s hard to deny that Kim Yo-jong gave a different face to a regime that most are used to seeing represented by its oft-ridiculed leader or goose-stepping soldiers in military parades. Still, everything is relative. Even a slight improvement in North Korea’s global image won’t necessarily translate into a strategic victory of any sort, given the low baseline. And sending a military apparatchik like Kim Yong-chol to the closing ceremony—the man allegedly in charge of North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan in 2010—may have compensated in negative publicity for whatever gains were made by Kim Yo-jong.
Even if relations between South and North Korea have warmed up somewhat during the Olympics, the basic facts of the conflict around North Korea’s nuclear program remain. Again, from the beginning, the Olympics could at best serve as an arena for contact, but they would never change the underlying conflict: North Korea sees its nuclear program as fundamentally necessary to the state’s survival, while the U.S. sees it as unacceptable. Any talks with North Korea, the White House says, must lead to North Korean denuclearization. As long as these positions remain locked, so will the conflict, and at the time of writing, both North Korea and the U.S. appear unwilling to back down even the slightest. During closing ceremony weekend, Reuters reported that the U.S. is considering deploying Coast Guard forces to the Asia-Pacific region to prevent North Korea from evading sanctions by intercepting and inspecting ships they suspect of breaching UN sanctions.
In sum, North Korea certainly scored some diplomatic points through the Olympics, but only time will tell whether the meetings between the Koreas will lead to tangible progress. The underlying conflict dynamics, after all, remain the same.