Authors: Zhou Dong-chen & Wang Li
On February 9, the 2018 Winter Olympics began sensationally in Pyeong-Chang, South Korea. The world media once again focused on the Korean Peninsula, yet, this time is the Olympic Game instead of the war game between North and South Koreas. To certain extent, the event offered moments of euphoria. As Bach, President of IOC, declared that “the Games can send a powerful message of peace to the world”.
No doubt, peace never comes easily and cheaply as well. One can argue that there held two inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007 respectively, their athletes also waved unified flags aloft in Sydney and their unified-teams competed at the other Olympic Games. Even people thought these meetings and unified efforts at the Olympic Games as the signals of a beautiful friendship, but their hopes did not last long. Tensions in the Korean Peninsula soon resumed. In light of this, the new euphoria on the Peninsula has aroused a political debate between liberals and conservatives on the Korean issues.
Liberal opinion represented by Moon Chung-in argues that the Olympics should be an opportunity for negotiation with North Korea, a process they understand will take time and is unlikely to run smoothly. But they insist that this opportunity should be seized and that Washington should lend a hand and support the negotiation process, even if that means delaying the yearly military drill or abstaining from any military attack on North Korea. As a result, liberals called for efforts to create the right conditions to realize such a visit and urged Pyongyang to actively seek dialogue with the United States.
Yet, to conservative scholars headed by Kim Young-ho, they openly criticized the current President’s liberal policy towards the North. Consider the past experiences in dealing with the North, they argued now is not the time for concessions towards the North and that the sanctions placed on it should continue and even be increased. Their concern also goes to any economic assistance that might be promised by Seoul to Pyongyang during negotiations will undermine the effectiveness of the sanctions and allow Pyongyang to continue developing its nuclear and missile capabilities. This actually echoes the U.S. belief that the diplomatic drive by Pyongyang tries to weaken the measures against it and eventually to loosen the alliance between the Seoul and Washington. Therefore, Vice President Pence reiterated in public remarks that North Korea has to “put denuclearization on the negotiation table and take concrete steps with the world community to dismantle, permanently and irreversibly, their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” Put it bluntly, “Denuclearization has to be the starting point of any change in Pyongyang.”
From the beginning, President Moon Jae-in has made a great deal of effort to persuade Kim Jong-un to send the North Korean team to participate in the Pyeong-Chang Winter Olympics. To that end, part of Moon’s effort involved persuading Washington to ease its anti-Kim rhetoric. As a result, Kim finally decided to participate in the Games to maximize the gains it would be able to accumulate following its achievement of credible deterrence via its ICBM with a nuclear warhead. It is believed that the Pyeong-Chang Olympics, followed by the Paralympics Games, should delay the next potential crisis until the end of March 2018, at which time the issue of the US-South Korea joint military drill will come back to the table. North Korea has demanded that South Korea not participate in this exercise. So far, no one can assure all the parties involved will do next simply because the United States was willing to postpone it until after the Olympics, but it will not approve a further request by Seoul to postpone for the sake of inter-Korean negotiations. Given this, President Moon will soon face the dilemma as follows: either participate in the military drill and terminate the dialogue with Pyongyang, or delay the drill, continue the dialogue, and intensify the dispute with Washington. That is evidently uncertain so far.
In a long run, South Korea can’t disengage itself from the United States but also has little chance of convincing Washington not to pursue such a stern policy toward North Korea. Yet, peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means. Because North Korea will not change or abandon its nuclear plan by overnight, all sides concerned should continue their efforts to persuade Pyongyang to return to the right side of history through joining rather than deserting the international community. In view of this, China’s leadership has demonstrated its will, wisdom and strength. During the state visit of President Moon Jae-in to China in December 2017, President Xi reiterated that China and ROK must firmly adhere to the goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and no war or chaos is allowed on the Peninsula. Due to this, China can only accept that the Peninsula would be resolved through diplomacy and it is ready to support two Koreas to improve their relations through talks. In his response to Xi, Moon reaffirms that Seoul is firmly committed to resolving the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue through peaceful means, and stands ready to work with China to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the region. On January 8, Moon formally announced that the United States and the ROK agreed to delay joint military exercise during the Pyeong-Chang Winter Olympics. No matter how is has been debated, it is surely a good start.
In international relations, legitimacy is usually built on the consensus between countries. Moon’s vow to work closely with China assures that peace remains there. As long as the key countries involved endorse peace, it is held that the spirit of the Olympics is bound to prevail over the nuclear phantom through multilateral dialogue in light of mutual respect and reciprocal benefits. Thus, Bach’s remark of “a powerful message of peace to the world” would be turned into a reality of peace.