In late December, Choi Moon-soon, the governor of the province in South Korea hosting the Winter Olympics met the North Korean officials accompanying the under-15 Ari Sports Cup tournament team from the North in Kunming, China to discuss the possible participation in the Olympics by the North. Little did the world expect to come out of that meeting; in fact, expressing his skepticism, Mr. Choi stated “We were looking for any contact with North Korea, and the youth soccer teams were the only inter-Korean exchange still going on.”
Notably, soon after Choi’s overture, the leaders of the two nations made vital gestures of cooperation. In a television interview, the South’s President, Moon Jae-in, hinted that he would encourage the adjourning of the annual joint military drills with the United States — an inimitable gesture of optimism. This is exactly what the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has repeatedly condemned. Consequence to this overture, Mr. Kim, declared at the flinch of the year that his athletes would participate in the Olympics under the same flag with the South – the unification flag.
All this comes amidst high tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula. Indeed, the presence of the North in Seoul was the result of months of low profile discussions and “niche diplomacy” with the purpose of urging Pyongyang to attend the Olympics. Interestingly, it was during the same period that the DPRK once again tested its latest intercontinental ballistic missile, Hwasong-15, which it claims to be an indication of the completion of Pyongyang’s nuclear statehood, thus becoming a full blown nuclear state. This new development is described as a great success due to its capability of reaching the entire U.S. mainland. Could it be that the North is just being smart whereas the South is subtly being hypnotized or even hoodwinked? Should the Olympics’ “diplomatic bridge” be allowed a chance to, for the first time, denuclearize the Korean peninsula (theoretically speaking)? Should the nuclear brouhaha that has occupied the world politics and almost reached a brinkmanship be given a second chance as the world converge at the heart of the tension?
Today, the two Koreans are participating in the Games as one team, howbeit, demonstrations and protest from some sections of the South Korean populace. Indeed, skepticism from great powers, particularly the USA has soared and warnings cautioning the South’s President to disentangle himself from the North’s enchantment have kept trickling in every now and then. With both President Trump and President Kim threatening to use the “nuclear buttons on their tables” the possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula outshined the Olympic preparations, and the eminent catastrophe frightened fans and athletes alike. Some nations were even hesitant in sending their nationals to the games altogether.
“We cannot be complacent,” said Tillerson, “The pressure campaign will continue until North Korea takes decisive steps to de-nuclearize.” Tillerson made these remarks at a summit on North Korea’s nuclear threat held in Vancouver, less than a month to the Winter Olympics in South Korea. “This is a strategy that has and will require patience, but, thanks to your support, the regime is already facing costs it is having difficulty bearing,” Tillerson reiterated. This is an obvious indication that the West and other world leaders are not resting on their oars in terms of denuclearizing the DPRK.
In other to lessen the tension and alley fears, organizers of the Games concluded that the North had to be persuaded to participate in the Games. There is no doubt that if the North joined the Games, the eminent security tension would ease dramatically. After all, “we share power to share the responsibility to protect.” South Korea has therefore turned a potential liability — Pyeongchang’s propinquity to the world’s most profoundly armed border into “a gamble of hope”, despite initial strong objection by other nations.
Significantly, Kim Yo Jong, the first in the Kim regime to have ever visited the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, came with an unusual proposal from the brother, requesting President Moon Jae-in to accept an invitation to visit Pyongyang for talks with his North Korean counterpart. This diplomatic conundrum could be seen as a necessary evil that could be a defining moment for Moon’s leadership, especially in the wake of warnings and protests from within and outside South Korea, doubting the candidness of the North’s gestures. If the meeting took place, it would be the first North-South summit on the peninsula since 2007. In as much as it would be a diplomatic breakthrough for the Moon administration, which came to power with the promise of unfettering icy relations with the North, it could also strain relations with the United States, which has already expressed its objection to the recent overtures between the two Koreans. The principal opposition party in South Korea, the Liberty Korea Party, has also retorted the meeting would only “benefit the enemy”. “We should firmly keep in mind that any talks where denuclearization is not a precondition only to buy North Korea more time to complete its nuclear capabilities while they fool us with their peace offensive facade,” party spokesman Chang Je-won cautioned. Japanese Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe has indicated that “Now is not the time to postpone US-South Korea military exercises. It is important to move forward with the drills as planned.” The Blue House, however, deems the issue an internal affair and feel the South’s position is much more important. China on its part has maintained its insistence on given peace and reconciliation a chance on the Korean Peninsula.
It is worth noting that, the issue is both internal and global, particularly when it involves nuclear arsenals capable of hitting targets beyond the peninsula. Besides, the fact that it has something to do with great power balancing, geopolitics, global politics and security alone, makes it a global issue.
Now, what matters is whether Seoul’s allies should support Moon’s efforts at pursuing his policies of reconciliation, or put the screws back on to Pyongyang. Perhaps, Kissinger’s “secret or quiet diplomacy” in the early 70s could help answer this boggling question. Dr. Kissinger’s diplomacy came through amidst distrust, isolation and sanctions, yet, peace coupled with reconciliation was possible when given a chance. This paved the way for President Nixon’s historic visit and culminated in the historic turn toward normalization in 1972.Today, the US and China are important trade and “security” partners. Again, it must be made clear that the South is not canvassing for the lifting of the sanctions; neither is Seoul demanding that intelligence sharing on the clandestine activities of the North should be put on hold. Denuclearization of the Peninsula should be of utmost importance to all powers, both small and great- to eschew a nuclear catastrophe and massive nuclear armament in the region. However, the panacea should not only be focused on coercion, other peaceful means such as what the Olympics has precipitated ought to be embraced as well.
Indeed, recalling the spirit of the Olympic truce of the ancient Greeks, officials and world leaders have often viewed the “Peace Games” as means to promoting reconciliation among nations, and the Korean Peninsula would be no exception. As Bach, president of IOC, acknowledged, “The Games can send a powerful message of peace to the world.” The Ministry of Unification should therefore be given the opportunity to pursue this new path of South-North overtures, though not without upholding the tipping point sanctions.