North Korea’s Olympics Balance Sheet: Promising Symbolism, but Conflict Positions Remain the Same

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.

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Trump’s Seoul Speech: All the Right Points, Still No Way Forward

President Trump’s speech in South Korea’s National Assembly on Wednesday, November 8, 2017 was likely the best foreign policy speech he has ever given. And that is not only because expectations were low. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to say that fears were high. After months of unpredictable diplomacy-by-Twitter—calling Kim Jong-un names, making seemingly off-the-cuff-threats, undermining diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—many feared that Trump’s speech would be yet another moment of this sort.

But rhetorical strength is no replacement for policy. Even though Trump’s speech largely checked all the necessary boxes for what a U.S. president should say during a state visit in South Korea, a fundamental divide remains between him and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in over how to deal with North Korea, and whether military strikes should really be on the table. Trump expressed a will to talk, but also continued to push North Korean denuclearization as a precondition for improved relations. North Korea has repeated time and time again that its nuclear weapons are non-negotiable. President Moon, on the other hand, has expressed several times a will to engage with North Korea despite (or perhaps because) of its nuclear progress. This is a policy difference about as big as they get and though symbolically important, Trump’s speech did little to change matters.

First, let us look at some of the good parts of the speech, of which there were many. Some have criticized Trump’s speech for being akin to a Wikipedia page on South Korean history. Such criticisms miss the genre, context, and point of speeches such as this one. Trump did not go to Seoul to lay out new, ground-breaking policy lines. This state visit was highly symbolic, especially after all the ups and downs of U.S.-Korea relations over the past few months. By speaking on South Korea’s history, and the history of U.S.-Korean relations, Trump tried, and succeeded, in affirming American respect and recognition of both.

By anchoring the U.S.-Korea alliance in the Korean War (1950–1953), the speech signaled that the countries’ relationship is about more than strategy and geopolitics. Take, for example, the following lines, almost right at the beginning (my emphasis):

“Almost 67 years ago, in the spring of 1951, they recaptured what remained of this city, where we are gathered so proudly today. It was the second time in a year that our combined forces took on steep casualties to retake this capital from the Communists. Over the next weeks and months, the men soldiered through steep mountains and bloody, bloody battles. Driven back at times, they willed their way north to form the line that today divides the oppressed and the free. And there, American and South Korean troops have remained together holding that line for nearly seven decades.”

In other words, the alliance is steeped in shared sacrifices on the battlefield. South Korea’s war—for the Korean War was never formally ended, fighting only stopped following an armistice—remains America’s, too.

Trump also dedicated significant time to extolling South Korea’s economic and political development. This part of his speech served an important purpose: it gave recognition to a national narrative of modern South Korea that is an important source of pride for many. This narrative obscures a great deal of suffering and oppression at the hands of the country’s military dictators, but you can’t demand full and perfect academic nuance from a presidential speech during a foreign visit. The success story, next to the failed, oppressive and poor hermit kingdom, is a powerful story.

But Trump repeated the same policy the U.S. has held onto for decades, and in very clear terms. Complete and verifiable denuclearization is the beginning of better relations, and not even a guarantee (my emphasis):

“And to those nations that choose to ignore this threat—or worse still, to enable it—the weight of this crisis is on your conscience. I also have come here to this peninsula to deliver a message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship. The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face. North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves. Yet despite every crime you have committed against God and man, you are ready to offer—and we will do that—we will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization.”

The leadership in Pyongyang sees things differently, to put it mildly. They see the nuclear weapons as the reason they haven’t met the same destiny as leaders like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Moreover, while Trump’s “message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship” was at least in part meant to reassure South Korea that the U.S. stands behind it, South Koreans know full well that they, and not the U.S. president or population, are the ones in greatest risk should tensions escalate into armed clashes or nuclear war. This difference underlies the basic but crucial tension between the U.S. and South Korean administrations, where there has been little visible coordination of statements and measures during the last months’ tensions around North Korea’s nuclear program.

Of course, there is probably more flexibility in reality than can be gleaned from major speeches. Secretary of State Tillerson, when talking to reporters in Vietnam on Friday, seemed to imply that the U.S. is open to talks with relatively few preconditions. He would look for a “relative period of quiet and an indication from Kim Jong Un himself that they would like to have some type of a meeting,” reported Bloomberg. Trump’s emphasis on the U.S. being open to talking to North Korea, under the right conditions, was also a change of nuance, if not of words, from his usual tone against the North Korean regime. Perhaps more is going on under the surface. But as of now, the deadlock remains.

For other articles related to the Korean Peninsula, see Russia-North Korea Economic Ties: Is There More Than Meets the Eye? and Time for Decisions on North Korea.

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