SHARE >>>  
/// NEWS
olympic thaw

Will the Olympic Thaw Hold?

28 February 2018

By Mascha Peters, Associate Fellow, EU-Asia Centre

On 25 February the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang ended with a spectacular closing ceremony – K-Pop, fireworks, a lightshow involving 300 Intel Shooting Star drones. And yet it was, again, North Korea, who put on the real show, stating they were ready for direct talks with the US.

This move came after a topsy-turvy two weeks for détente prospects. Kim Jong-Un sent his sister to the opening of the Olympics but also cancelled a planned meeting with US vice-president Mike Pence. She extended an invitation to President Moon to visit the DPRK at the same time as the US were extending sanctions against the North.

Unthinkable three months ago when all talk was about a US ‘bloody nose’ strike, the “spirit of Pyeongchang” has quickly become the synonym for a peaceful solution to the North Korean nuclear issue. But will this thaw lead to a true détente?

Summer Summit?

Much will depend on Moon Jae-In’s diplomatic statecraft. The current pause in tensions is a welcome breather after a year of rising tensions. The prospect of an inter-Korean summit and direct talks between the US and the DPRK is good news. Moon has always made US-North Korean talks a precondition to any inter-Korean summit and Kim Jong-Un has acted upon that.

The next step will be for the North to approach the US directly presumably via its New York channel. There is speculation that the South Korean president might travel north before the summer. Until then he will have a delicate path to tread keeping Washington on board. But so far Moon is showing a deft touch.  Pyongyang wants to come to the table while the US and South Korea demonstrate unity, no wedge in sight.

Moon Jae-In comes from a political camp that would prefer to diminish US influence on inter-Korean affairs, e.g. by accelerating the OPCON transfer process of taking over wartime control of military forces from the US (Seoul regained the right to control its armed forces in peacetime in 1994, but the transfer of full autonomy over wartime OPerational CONtrol has been postponed several times). But currently his room to manoeuvre is limited. Apart from the fact that the strategic alliance with the US is vital for South Korea’s security there is also a sanctions regime to take into account, not to mention Donald Trump’s announcement to renegotiate or terminate the KORUS FTA.

Domestic challenges

Apart from navigating relations with the US and keeping the door open to the North, the South Korean president has to keep an equally alert eye on domestic issues. There is little public support for his policy of engagement – most citizens want him to focus on domestic issues. Even those living in the capital, a mere  50 km south of the DMZ, have grown accustomed to the erratic regime across the border. Finding a solution to the North Korean problem is not perceived the most pressing issue, especially not for the younger generation in South Korea. To them the soaring youth unemployment vis-à-vis sky-rocketing costs of living pose a much more tangible threat.

The spirit of Pyeongchang is not so much working in South Korea itself, where the general perception is that the North hijacked the Games. It didn’t exactly help that the second North Korean delegation was led by Kim Yong-Chol, who is assumed to have been the mastermind behind the Cheonan incident in 2010, which killed 46 South Korean seamen. In order to increase public support for his engagement policy Moon would have to achieve a palpable short-time goal, like convincing the North to allow inter-Korean family reunions.

Timing is crucial

If the summit is to have a meaningful impact it has to happen soon. The last inter-Korean summit took place only months before the end of Roh Moo-hyun’s tenure and much of what he and Kim Jong-Il agreed on was rescinded by the subsequent conservative government of Lee Myung-bak. But even though the late Roh Moo-hyun was his political mentor, it has already become obvious that Moon’s approach is different in that he proceeds more cautiously.  His actions illustrate that he is not going to give the North something for nothing, not least by appointing veterans of inter-Korean dialogue to key positions in his government.  One of them is Suh Hoon, chief of the National Intelligence Service, who is now being floated as a special envoy to North Korea. Hoon lived in North Korea for two years in the 1990s when the regime agreed to freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for normalized relations with the US (a deal which, by the way, ultimately failed because the US did not keep its commitments).

Time is also crucial in another sense: From 8-18 March the Paralympics will take place in Pyeongchang and the North’s participation is likely. The Trump administration agreed to postpone the joint US-ROK military drill until after the Paralympics, but without serious progress Washington will not run the risk of looking like it is being played by the North. Another question is what the North is actually bringing to the table if a summit was going to take place. Currently there is no reason to assume that Pyongyang is actually willing to comply with the US’ ultimate aim of the complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programme.

The goal of a CVID is also supported by the EU. HR/VP Mogherini recently affirmed the EU’s strict sanction regime and said the EU was working to encourage third states to fully implement the UNSC resolutions as well. In an effort to simultaneously maintain the diplomatic track, the South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kang Kyung-Wha, has been invited to the next meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council on 19 March where she will have a chance to brief the EU directly.