SKATING ON THAWING ICE?

The two Koreas’ joint participation in the Winter Olympics gives cause for optimism over the nuclear crisis but, warns Maxwell Downman, obstacles to wider cooperation still lie ahead

The new year brings new opportunities, and 2018 opened with a brief glimmer of hope in the North Korean nuclear crisis. After only one day of negotiations, Pyongyang accepted Seoul’s invitation to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics this February.

Following the acceptance, Washington and Seoul have agreed to postpone controversial joint military exercises scheduled to begin this month.Furthermore, Pyongyang and Seoul have decided to restore a military hotline across the DMZ, to field a joint women’s ice hockey team and march together at the opening ceremony under the flag of a unified Korea for the first time since 2007.

While many have been quick to dismiss the agreement as a ploy by Kim Jong-n to sow division between Washington and Seoul, others have hailed the breakthrough as the start of better things to come. Even President Trump has expressed cautious optimism. ‘I would love to see them take it beyond the Olympics,’ he told reporters on January 6, ‘and at the appropriate time, we’ll get involved.’

So, what opportunities to resolve the nuclear crisis does North Korea’s participation in the Olympics bring? Both North and South Korea’s motivations for cooperating in the Olympics deserve unpacking for, while cooperation should be lauded, there are still huge barriers to taking any agreement beyond the Olympics.

North Korea’s participation is in large part a natural outcome of a tense 2017. If Kim Jong-un’s goal is to develop a reliable nuclear deterrent against the United States –and evidence points towards this –it is therefore logical to think that he would seek to reduce tension after gaining confidence in his nuclear weapons.

In Kim’s New Year’s Address, the acceptance of Moon Jae-in’s Olympic olive branch was still sandwiched between a display of confidence in Pyongyang’s nuclear capability and willingness to use them in retaliation as well as an emphasis on Juche, North Korea’s self-reliance in the face of sanctions. For now, any developments on these other issues seem unlikely.

Both Kim and Moon have clear goals and constraints for cooperating on the Olympic Games. For Kim, it affords the opportunity to improve the impression of North Korean society globally and to de-escalate tension through moderating contested US-South Korean military exercises. For Moon, North Korea’s participation demonstrates Seoul’s maturity as a diplomatic power, brings legitimacy to South Korea, and offers hope of rekindling family reunions during the lunar new year, a perennial issue in South Korean domestic politics, while similarly reducing military tension.

Pyongyang and Seoul have decided to restore a military hotline across the DMZ

Indeed, both men have proved themselves deft politicians. Since rising to power Kim has an impressive track record by North Korean standards. He has successfully developed an intercontinental ballistic missile and tested an atomic bomb, to the chagrin of the international community. He has consolidated power around himself and eliminated all potential rivals. In 2013, he disposed of his Uncle Jang Song Thank, de-facto ruler in Kim Jung-il’s latter years. And in February 2017, his older half-brother Kim Jung Nam, who was living under Chinese protection, was poisoned while visiting Kuala Lumpur.

Similarly, Moon has demonstrated an ability to traverse difficult political climbs. Despite diverging approaches to the crisis, he has ended every meeting with President Trump on good terms. The US President even claimed responsibility for the Olympic agreement. Whether or not Trump’s pressure contributed to the agreement, it was smart for Moon to frame it as such to give the US a buy-in on the process.

At the same time Moon has managed to normalise relations with China, which were suspended after Seoul’s agreement to host THAAD, with remarkable alacrity. In December President Xi and Moon agreed on the four principles for peace in Korea: No war in the Korean Peninsula, No nuclear weapons in the KoreanPeninsula, Peaceful resolution of all issues including denuclearisation, and a commitment to improved inter-Korean relations.

Yet both leaders face a number of difficulties in building any cooperation beyond the Olympics.

Most directly, the issue of military exercises could scupper fragile cooperation. Pyongyang’s participation is largely contingent on Washington and Seoul’s agreement to postpone military exercises. Yet, in April the two still plan to commence the joint Key Resolve Exercises.

Far from being soft on North Korea, Moon has attempted to show resolve against provocations fromPyongyang. After North Korea’s ballistic missile test in July last year, South Korea tested decapitation strikes to show they could destroy the North Korean leadership in the event of a strike. In August, after North Korea fired a missile over Japan, Moon demonstrated the same tenacity once again through bomber drills with bunker busting capabilities. And in September, Trump and Moon revised joint guidelines limiting South Korea’s ballistic missile payload. Any North Korean action in 2018 will likely be met with similar responses.

North of the DMZ, Pyongyang is already planning on taking advantage of the Olympics to show their military might by hosting a large-scale military parade on February 8, the day before the Olympics’ opening ceremony. At the end of January, the North Korean Politburo designated February 8 1948 as the foundation of the North Korean People’s Army. According to South Korean sources, 13,000 troops and 200 pieces of equipment have been near Pyongyang Airport for a possible rehearsal of the parade.

Both Kim Kong-un (l) and Moon Jae-in have proved themselves skilful politicians
Both Kim Kong-un (l) and Moon Jae-in have proved themselves skilful politicians

Reciprocity beyond the Olympics will be needed to build good will and get North Korea to suspend missile and nuclear tests. For Pyongyang, this will mean having confidence in their ability to deter an attack. For Seoul and Washington this could mean adjusting the size and scope of military drills, especially of nuclear capable assets such as the B-52 bomber.

Yet the odds of getting Pyongyang to freeze fissile material production and dismantle its nuclear programme are next to none, unless the two sides can move towards normalisation.To date, Trump’s ‘maximum pressure and engagement’ policy has shown little appetite for normalisation. By focusing solely on denuclearisation as a precondition for discussions, it has scuppered hopes of negotiations.

The odds of getting Pyongyang to freeze fissile material production and dismantle its nuclear programme are next to none

Nonetheless, amid the contradictory messages of the Trump Administration, there are hopes that this might be changing. A senior State Department official hinted in late January that face-to-face meetings between the two sides could begin before the end of the Olympics. These could ‘start at the edges,’ with each country describing how it sees the future, and then ‘work toward the centre’, meaning denuclearisation. While the Olympics could offer the parameters for such open discussions to begin, their success will be largely contingent on the acceptance that gains will likely be small and negotiations will probably ‘stay at edge.’

North Korea’s participation in the Olympics has offered a much-needed window to de-escalate tension on the Korean Peninsula. It shows that with common interests, cooperation is possible – no matter how narrow. However, a lasting peace and greater cooperation will be dependent on moving beyond this narrow interest. Unless both sides begin to talk to each other about both military tension and normalisation more broadly, progress will pass by with the Olympic Games. Unfortunately, that decision is not solely up to the Koreas.


Maxwell Downman is a political researcher with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), London’s independent disarmament and arms control think-tank. He focuses on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and East Asian international security .

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