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Korean olympic detente

The Korean Olympic Détente - Sport, Diplomacy and the Army of Beauties

8 February 2018

By Mascha Peters, Associate Fellow, EU-Asia Centre

On 9 February the Winter Olympic Games will commence in Pyeongchang, just 80 km from the demilitarized zone that divides Korea. But to the surprise of many, South and North Korea will march together at the opening ceremony under a Unification Flag – a pale blue shape of the Korean peninsula against a white background, designed to represent all of Korea. It won’t be the first time this happens; North Korea has quite a history at the Olympics which it boycotted only twice – the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul. But there will be a number of “firsts” at this year’s games.

Sports diplomacy behind the scenes

Less than three months ago North Korea tested the third of its intercontinental ballistic missiles, completing an unprecedented series of 20 missile and one nuclear test in one year alone. 2017 was also the year Donald Trump and Moon Jae-In took office, two allies who embody opposite political positions, parties and beliefs, yet are chained to each other in an unhappy alliance since the Korean War. Now there is speculation that Trump might order a pre-emptive strike against ‘Rocket Man’ if sanctions fail to stop North Korea’s nuclear programme.

And yet it appears that in the midst of rising tensions and in spite of major setbacks in inter-Korean relations, sports diplomacy is leading to a new détente. The question is will it outlast the Olympics? Two secret meetings between South and North Korean sports officials took place in China in late December 2017. Around the same time, Moon’s request to the U.S. to postpone the next joint military exercise received a positive reaction. “Key Resolve and Foal Eagle”, the annual display of US and South Korean military force, was rescheduled until after the Games. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un responded by agreeing that the DPRK would participate in the Games.

This led to the first inter-Korean talks in two years on 9 January in Panmunjom when modalities for the DPRK’s participation in the Games were agreed. The talks did not discuss nuclear issues or the “freeze-for-freeze” proposed by China, but it is safe to say that Kim won’t send missiles while up to 500 of his fellow countrymen are in the south. He has, however, rescheduled the official Army Building Day Parade from 25 April to 8 February, one day before the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang.

Trump has been quiet in his normal daily threats against Kim but there is no change in the US assessment of how to deal with the DPRK. Just a few weeks ago, HR Mc Master, US national security adviser, said the potential for war with North Korea was increasing by the day.

Internationally applauded, nationally shunned

Commercial sponsors of the Games are happy at the sudden prospect of increased international attention and an upswing in the so far lagging ticket sales. Despite the fact that the only North Korean athletes to qualify for the Pyeongchang Games are two figure skaters, North Korea will send a large delegation of athletes, musicians and cheerleaders – the latter being Kim’s handpicked “army of beauties”. Most remarkably the world will see the first inter-Korean Olympic team ever, a joint team in women’s ice hockey. And yet North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics, backed as it is by the USA, Russia and China, is not receiving the warm welcome one would expect from the brother in the South. In keeping with tradition, South Korean conservatives argue that President Moon was too soft on North Korea, denigrating the games as the “Pyongyang Olympics”. Conservative newspapers also opposed the idea of an inter-Korean hockey team, saying it diminished chances for the South to win a medal.

In January Moon’s approval rate dropped to 64%, the lowest since he took office. People in South Korea do not seem to believe in ice hockey’s potential to bring about political thaw. According to the ASAN Institute for Policy Studies, the president lost approval in particular among young voters in their 20’s and 30’s, who once supported him at over 90%. (Though on closer inspection, Seoul’s decision to regulate bitcoin trade seems to have had a big impact on the numbers, too.) And Korean internet portals are brimming over with demands for a more hawkish approach as well as warnings that the Olympic gesture was the last olive branch Seoul extended to Pyongyang.

Moon’s North Korea policy

Moon, son to North Korean refugees, might be the last South Korean president to have a personal motive driving him. But he is far from being naïve. His campaign promise to seek engagement with the North has to be seen in the grander scheme of geopolitics, in the context of which South Korea is hoping for a more independent role in the region. Korean progressives do not believe that relying on the United States will make the bomb go away. Against the backdrop of an augmented Sino-American power competition and the military rise of Japan, the shrimp between the whales is seeking a new strategy. Instead of making denuclearization a precondition, the current South Korean government would like to “place it at the exit stage of negotiations”[1]. Moon has stated that South Korea should take the lead in future Six Party Talks and he hopes that his Olympic success will increase South Korea’s leverage vis-à-vis the United States and China.

Positive prospects for inter-Korean relations?

Prudence is key, but there are reasons for cautious optimism. After the meeting in Panmunjom, a joint press statement was released in which both sides agreed to hold more high-level talks in the future, including military talks. It was also confirmed that day that the telephone hotline between the two countries, which had been cut off since 2015, had already been reconnected on 3 January, after Kim’s New Year’s speech and prior to Washington’s consent to postpone the military exercise. The regime in the North was reported to think highly of the postponement and although it did not officially announce a moratorium on the testing during the Olympics, it seems very likely that it will refrain from any provocations. In addition, the DPRK will send Kim Yong-Nam to the games, the North’s ceremonial head of state, the highest ranking official ever to cross the border to the South, plus Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong, who has recently been elevated to the Politburo and is to meet the South Korean president on Saturday.

It remains to be seen whether Kim Yong-Nam will attend the opening ceremony where he would run the risk of meeting US Vice president Mike Pence and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. China will send Han Zheng, member of the Standing Committee and the seventh-highest-ranking CP official. Thirty years after the last Olympic Games hosted by South Korea, they will all meet in freezing cold Pyeongchang and the world will watch their every move. And while it is unlikely that the North will take home any medals, Kim Jong-Un could still win hearts by giving in to the South’s request for family reunions on the Korean New Year’s Day on 16 February, one week into the games.

There is thus much to play for during the winter Olympics. Japan’s foreign minister Tara Kono has come out strongly against any military action against the DPRK. But in Washington the Trump administration has withdrawn the nomination of the respected Victor Cha as ambassador to South Korea for allegedly making critical remarks about plans to give the North a ‘bloody nose.’

The EU remains committed to supporting international sanctions but as Mogherini has noted, this must eventually lead to a political solution.