Will the Spirit of the Olympics Temper Kim’s “Wedge Strategy”?

The 1988 Games in Seoul were overshadowed by tragedy. Thirty years on, some hope the 2018 Games will lead to a breakthrough.

North Korean and South Korean athletes march into the stadium during the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea on Sunday.
AP Photo/Chris Carlson
March 1, 2018, 8 p.m.

The Olympics first introduced the world to the concept of “ékécheiria,” meaning to “lay down arms.” The ancient Greeks developed the idea in order to allow athletes, artists, and spectators to travel safely to the competition. In 1998, the International Olympic Committee said the concept should apply to conflicts around the world.

When the Paralympic Games end in South Korea on March 18, observers hope North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will decide to capitalize on that goodwill by slowing or stopping his nuclear-missile tests. The White House announced Sunday that it “would see” if the North Koreans were willing to hold talks. Despite some gestures of goodwill during the Games between North Korea and its adversaries, regional experts are skeptical that any amount of “ékécheiria” will cause Kim to cease his programs.

Christopher Green, an analyst at the International Crisis Group, said North Korea’s diplomatic strategy is to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. “North Korea is attempting to destabilize the ROK-U.S. alliance, destabilize the international consensus on sanctions focused on the UN, and destabilize South Korean politics and society,” Green said. South Koreans came out of the Olympic negotiations looking “mature and diplomatic,” he said, but they are unlikely to reach substantive agreements without the backing of the United States.

Here’s how Kim’s “wedge” strategy played out before the Olympics: On New Year’s Day, Kim offered a rare olive branch to South Korea President Moon Jae-in, declaring his wish “for peaceful resolution with our southern border,” and for the success of the Olympics; in the same speech, Kim reminded U.S. officials that the “nuclear button is on my office desk all the time” and that “the U.S. mainland is within our nuclear-strike range.” While President Trump bragged about his much larger nuclear button on Twitter, delegations from North and South Korea met at the border village of Panmunjom for their first formal dialogue in two years.

Joseph DeTrani, former special envoy for six-party talks with North Korea, described Kim’s Olympic overtures as “an opening volley” that might create momentum for future negotiations between the North and the South. But he warns that the United States should engage only if the North Koreans are serious about “comprehensive and verifiable” denuclearization. “If [the North Koreans] get some goodwill for the Olympics, hopefully they’d want to seize that momentum,” DeTrani said. “To go back to missile launches and nuclear tests, that would be a terrible message to the world, and certainly the region.”

On Feb. 20, the State Department revealed that North Korean diplomats pulled out of a secret Olympic meeting with Vice President Mike Pence at the last minute after Pence condemned the regime’s human-rights abuses. “We regret the failure to seize this opportunity,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. It’s unclear whether the North Koreans were ever serious about negotiating directly with Pence.

“Policymakers in Beijing and Moscow will not fret over Washington’s exclusion,” Sergey Radchenko, a professor of international politics at Cardiff University and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote in an email. “America’s loss is their gain, and they certainly do not mind when South Korea and the United States do not see eye to eye on questions of policy.” Radchenko said the United States has to be “clear-eyed” about the potential for a diplomatic breakthrough after the Olympics.

This isn’t the first time the Olympics have been a flash point in the region. “The 1988 Olympics was South Korea’s global coming-out party,” Sheila Miyoshi Jager, professor of East Asian Studies and History at Oberlin College, wrote in an email. When South Korea refused to cohost the Olympics with the comparably poorer North, Jager added, the Soviet Union “decided to forgo its relationship with North Korea.” Angry and embittered, North Korean operatives planted explosives in Korean Air Flight 858, killing all 115 passengers just months before the Summer Olympics began. The Reagan administration labeled North Korea a state sponsor of terror, and the regime sank further into political and economic isolation.

The 2018 Olympics were, thankfully, free of similar fiascos. North and South Korean athletes marched under a unified flag, and members from both women’s hockey teams were cheered on by an international audience. But these publicity coups are nothing new (the flag was first displayed at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships, and then again at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy) and they won’t change Kim’s plan if he deems nuclear weapons vital to his survival. “It is hard to move from sports diplomacy to actual political and social improvements,” Green said. “We are a long way away from sincere, robust, regular inter-Korean communications.”

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