For months, the world has wondered whether North Korea might try to cause trouble for South Korea during next month’s Winter Olympics. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s behavior in 2017 and his continued missile and nuclear tests gave observers in South Korea and the United States every reason to expect the worst. Then, in his New Year’s speech, Kim announced a proposal to renew dialogue with Seoul, initially focusing on the North’s participation in the games. South Korea responded positively, agreeing to the first North-South talks in two years, slated for January 9th.
While many pundits have portrayed Kim’s initiative as an effort to drive a wedge between a United States intent on pressuring North Korea and a South Korea convinced that dialogue will lower tensions, it’s also possible to view Kim’s recent opening as an opportunity. While President Trump’s remarks on Saturday, in which he supported inter-Korean dialogue and expressed his own willingness to talk to Kim, may indicate recognition of this emerging reality, the administration would do well to follow Ronald Reagan’s example.
In November 1987, two North Korean agents blew up a South Korean airliner, killing all 115 aboard. Yet only a year later, in December 1988, the United States and North Korea began official talks in China. How did a Cold-War hawk like Reagan pull off such a feat? Careful diplomacy, and a particularly savvy use of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
While the circumstances of 1988 and 2018 are by no means exactly alike, there are striking similarities. Ahead of this year’s games, there is an opportunity for Washington and Seoul to coordinate their strategy and move from confrontation to dialogue. That strategy could consist of small confidence-building measures, ultimately intended to lead to talks that address each side’s concerns—particularly the North Korean nuclear threat.
In the late 1980s, South Korea, emerging from decades of military rule, viewed the Olympics as a coming-out party for its new, democratically-elected government. But the sense of celebration was undercut by fears that the North would try to disrupt the event. Indeed, scaring off participants in the games may have been one objective of the 1987 bombing. Still, soon after taking office in February 1988, South Korea’s President Roh Tae U, a former general, began considering a new approach: dialogue with North Korea if the Olympics went off without a hitch.
Washington was also rethinking its approach to Pyongyang. Since the end of the Korean War, its overriding objective in the region was to provide political, military, and economic support for the South while isolating the North, which not only posed a serious threat to its friends but was also aligned with its Cold-War adversaries, the Soviet Union and China. However, the Reagan administration came to realize that the only way to secure peace on the Korean Peninsula was to reach out to the North. By 1987, Washington had already begun discussions with the South over the possibility of easing its policy of isolation. Thus, Roh’s initiative found fertile ground.
According to declassified U.S. government documents and interviews with former officials, the Reagan administration devised a roadmap for engaging North Korea, dubbed the “modest initiative.” It was not intended as a grand bargain to resolve all outstanding Korea-related issues. Rather, the new approach aimed to align Washington with Roh, while paving the way for a new U.S. policy towards Pyongyang.
The key to the Reagan strategy was that it did not depend on reciprocal steps by Pyongyang. In other words, if the Kim regime merely showed restraint by leaving the Olympics alone, Washington would encourage unofficial, nongovernmental visits by North Koreans to the United States, ease financial regulations impeding travel to the North by U.S. citizens, permit limited commercial export of humanitarian goods to the North, and allow State Department officers to hold substantive discussions with North Korean diplomats. When the Seoul Olympics concluded without disruption, the Reagan administration approved all four steps.
But the modest initiative didn’t end there. The Reagan administration decided that, in lieu of requiring reciprocal measures by North Korea, it would ask for a “positive, constructive” response. Five suggested steps were conveyed to Pyongyang via its ally, China: Demonstrate tangible progress on North-South dialogue; return the remains of Americans missing in action from the Korean War; stop the drumbeat of anti-U.S. propaganda; implement confidence-building measures along the demilitarized zone; and offer credible assurances that it had abandoned state-backed terrorism.
President Reagan’s policy laid the groundwork for the historic 1992 session between Arnold Kanter, President George H.W. Bush’s undersecretary of state, and a senior North Korean official, to discuss the nuclear challenge. That set the stage for the Clinton administration’s 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, which stalled Pyongyang’s efforts to build nuclear weapons. The “modest initiative” also helped South Korea reach a number of landmark bilateral agreements with the North in the early 1990s that eased tensions.
If Trump chose to follow Reagan’s playbook, he could launch a policy that both supported South Korea and signaled its intent to start serious talks if Kim agreed not to meddle with the upcoming Olympics. The announcement last week that the Joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled to take place during the games would be postponed until afterwards could be a useful start.
On Saturday, President Trump seemed to take another positive step in this direction, expressing his support for inter-Korean dialogue. “I always believe in talking,” he said. He also said that he would “like to see them getting involved in the Olympics,” and expressed his own willingness to talk to Kim—a statement that would mean even more if he stopped lobbing personal insults at the North Korean leader.
While maintaining “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang through sanctions, in its own small ways, Washington should build on what has happened so far to signal to Kim that the diplomatic door is being cracked open. For one thing, it could help fix problems encountered by the United Nations and private organizations that provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea. This would stem the exodus of donors frightened off by tighter international sanctions (even though these do not prohibit assistance). The Trump administration could also consider relaxing the restrictions on North Korean diplomats at the UN, who are currently barred from traveling beyond a 25-mile radius from New York.
Following Reagan’s precedent, the Trump administration could ask Pyongyang for a “positive, constructive” response. It could suggest North Korea grant Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang consular access to the three Americans still being held in its prisons, play a constructive role in advancing inter-Korean dialogue—particularly in military-to-military talks—intended to reduce tensions, and clearly state that it opposes international terrorism, including acts involving chemical, biological or nuclear devices and materials.
The argument will be made that none of these steps directly address North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its increasingly capable arsenal of ballistic missiles. Of course they don’t. But neither does the current course. These first steps have a different aim: initiating a process to pull us back from the edge.
Critics may also charge that the North Korean nuclear threat makes today far more dangerous than 1988, and that, in the end, Reagan’s approach and those that followed did not prevent the current standoff. The latter criticism is based on a shallow reading of the history, focused on what eventually happened, but not why. His modest initiative did what it set out to do: It sparked a long period of productive interaction with Pyongyang.
With this year’s Olympics, history has offered us a chance to try again. If the United States and South Korea ignore the lesson of 1988, the window will close. When the last athlete turns out the lights and leaves the Olympic village, the opportunity that exists today will vanish.