It is January 9th, 10 a.m. in Panmunjom, a village in the middle of the demilitarized zone that stretches between North and South Korea. Officials from both countries have gathered to discuss the possibility of North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics, beginning February 9th, in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang. The two sides have not talked for over two years; South Korean officials repeatedly called through the established hotline, but their counterparts never answered. Over the next eleven hours of negotiating, a carefully crafted deal would emerge. North Korea promised to send a delegation of athletes, officials, reporters, and cheerleaders to the Winter Olympics; South Korea and the United States agreed to postpone regional military exercises. Most importantly, both sides committed to future negotiations (1).
Few expected such an outcome. Indeed, throughout 2017, relations between the U.S. and South Korea on the one hand and North Korea on the other were characterized by aggressive rhetoric and nuclear brinkmanship. Most analysts predicted 2018 would continue this tense, downward spiral, and not without warrant. In his New Year’s Day address, Kim Jong-Un announced that he had a “nuclear button” on his desk, and President Trump responded on Twitter by claiming that he too had a nuclear button, one that was “much bigger & more powerful” (2, 10). The world watched and held its breath.
Not all of Kim’s speech consisted of fire and fury, however. In fact, a glimmer of hope appeared when he called for a “detente,” encouraging North and South Korea to thaw their frozen relations and raising the possibility of sending a North Korean delegation to the Winter Olympics. Naturally, President Moon Jae-In of South Korea jumped at the offer, and the Panmunjom meeting was the result. Besides agreeing to participate in the Olympics, North Korea has also consented to have its athletes march under a flag symbolizing a unified Korea (7). The North Korean cheerleading team—known as the “army of beauties”— has already garnered massive media attention in Japan and South Korea (6).
Is North Korea finally starting to play nice? There are a variety of reasons that suggest the opposite. Most likely, Kim simply wants to buy time to continue his country’s nuclear development; Harry J. Kazianis of The American Conservative has gone so far as to describe North Korea’s participation in the games as a “Trojan horse with a nuclear trigger” (4).
In the past few months, international pressure on the North Korean regime has intensified, with the U.S. State Department designating the country a state sponsor of terrorism and President Trump declaring an end to the “era of strategic patience.” In August, September, and December of 2017, the UN Security Council passed three separate resolutions imposing further sanctions upon the regime, and, throughout the year, the U.S. and South Korea conducted a variety of military exercises (3). Participating in the Winter Olympics thus represents a cost-free way for the regime to encourage the easing of sanctions and military force. As Peter Harrell and Juan Zarate of Foreign Affairs magazine put it, “In the past, Pyongyang has used diplomatic gambits to seek a reduction in military pressure without having to concede anything meaningful, a strategy that has allowed it to avoid truly punishing economic consequences” (11). There is little reason to think this time will be any different.
North Korea may also be seeking to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States at a time of friction between the two countries (1). Indeed, the North Korean Central News Agency said “dependence on the outsiders” during negotiations would only “make matters more complicated,” a pointed jab at the U.S. To some extent, President Trump and President Moon Jae-in have differing perspectives on how to deal with North Korea: while the former wants to apply “maximum pressure” on the regime, the latter promotes a more diplomatic approach (8). Recently, the Trump administration abruptly withdrew the nominated ambassador to South Korea after the envoy voiced concerns about using a limited military strike (5). These developments provide vindication for those who worry about North Korea’s intentions. In a recent editorial, Chosen Ilbo, the largest South Korean newspaper, described Kim Jong-un as “cozying up to South Korea, with the aim of driving a wedge between the allies” (9). “It seems obvious,” says the paper, “who is leading whom by the nose.”
Given North Korea’s less than benign motives, South Korea, the U.S., and the rest of the international community should continue to apply economic and military pressure to Kim and his cronies. North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics is a beneficial development, but it should not obscure the fundamental brutality of the North Korean regime. The country remains frozen in a deathly winter, and it will remain so until the true spring of democracy comes to the North Korean people.