North Korea’s Olympic Charm Offensive

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un
A man watches a television news broadcast, showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address, at a railway station in Seoul. Photo: AFP

North Korea’s participation in the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics has caught the world by surprise. Following North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year proposal for dialogue, the two Koreas agreed to a 550 North Korean delegation to join the Games from February 9. The apparent détente comes after North Korean nuclear and missile tests have ratcheted up tensions on the Korean Peninsula to dangerous levels, and barbed exchanges between Kim and President Donald J. Trump had policy makers predicting a second Korean War.

After two years of a relations freeze the two Koreas are planning on marching together during the opening ceremony and fielding a joint women’s ice hockey team. Is Kim Jong-un’s Olympic olive branch a strategy to break the isolation caused by its nuclear and missile advancements? Will North Korea’s Olympic charm offensive evolve into something bigger?

South Korean President, Moon Jae-in welcomed developments as a “precious chance to open the door” and establish peace between the two Koreas. But Moon is facing falling approval ratings and a backlash from conservatives and young South Koreans who claim that experimenting with sports diplomacy disadvantages South Korean athletes.

South Korea’s recently inaugurated President wants it both ways: pushing for dialogue with the North since his inauguration while supporting international sanctions. The South Korean progressive leader has said that the thaw will not extend to ending economic sanctions on the North. Until now, North Korea has rebuffed Southern attempts at dialogue. Kim’s New Year address put Pyongyang in the driver’s seat of inter-Korean relations, sending a clear signal that North Korea is willing to talk, but only on its own terms.

Korean Olympic collaboration threatens to upend U.S. strategy towards North Korea. The White House has pursued a dual strategy of its own, pressuring North Korea through punitive sanctions and the threat of military intervention, while also claiming an openness to dialogue. The fear is North Korea is trying to create a wedge between the U.S.-South Korea alliance: closer North and South Korea cutting U.S. interests out of negotiations. The Trump administration has appeared cautious on developments. A spokesman for the National Security Council commented, “Let’s hope that the experience gives the North Korean athletes a small taste of freedom and that it rubs off.”

We should not expect the Olympic inspired dialogue to result in North Korean denuclearization. North Korea has made very clear that its reaching out to the South has nothing to do with its nuclear program. But it could create a favorable environment for improving inter-Korean relations.

The neutrality and low political profile of sports mean that seemingly innocuous events have the potential to foster an environment for cooperation between rivals. But there are always limits on what can be achieved: sport is sport and an excessive politicization – or securitization – of sport is likely to result in disappointment. Sport can create favorable conditions, but a complicated process of negotiations on delicate issues such as the nuclear and missile issue must be based on a clear political strategy.

Under previous South Korean administrations, sporting cooperation was part of a broader strategy of engagement towards North Korea and was significant for its symbolic role. But the line between politics – in this case, nuclear politics – and cultural exchange was clear during South Korea’s Sunshine drive.

South Korea’s enthusiastic response to Kim Jong-un’s overtures raises an important question: what is Seoul’s strategy in dealing with the North? In a short-term perspective, Pyongyang’s Olympic participation offers reassurance against North Korean military provocations during the Games. But in the long term, the “dual track” approach – dialogue with sanctions – will fail to improve inter-Korean relations and reduce the North Korean nuclear threat.

Olympic cooperation will evolve into something more substantial. But only if Seoul is ready to put aside hopes of North Korean de-nuclearization, at least temporarily, and focus on inter-Korean cooperation and fostering goodwill.