With about five weeks to go until the Winter Olympics in South Korea, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un suddenly appeared to reverse course. Having focused on nuclear and missile testing while rejecting conciliatory calls from the South to open dialogue, Kim in a New Year’s speech made his own offer for talks on how to create a peaceful environment for the Olympics and the 70th anniversary of North Korea’s founding. The South quickly accepted, proposing to hold talks next week.
But it may not be an unalloyed success for South Korea’s progressive President Moon Jae In, who has staked his political future on improving relations in the North. In reality, it’s an attempt to put him in an impossible bind.
Moon wants to host a peaceful 2018 Winter Olympic games, as well as open direct dialogue with his neighbor. But in pursuing those things, Moon cannot succumb to North Korean nuclear blackmail to weaken the South’s military alliance with the United States—in the very same New Year’s speech, Kim claimed to be able to hit the U.S. with a nuclear weapon. Nor can Moon abandon the U.S.-led international pressure campaign against North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.
Kim’s dialogue proposal is based on the North’s well-worn “By Our Nation Itself” line—that South Koreans must abandon interference from outside powers, who have benefited from keeping the peninsula week and divided, and join with North Korean compatriots to achieve independent national unification. This scheme, incidentally, is incompatible with the international pressure campaign the U.S. is relying on to manage the North’s nuclear program—not to mention with the U.S. alliance the South is relying on to protect it.
And the gambit appeals directly to Moon’s goals, while trying to force a choice: a peaceful Olympics, or South Korea’s alliance with the United States. As part of his dialogue proposal, Kim explicitly criticized the Moon administration for “joining the United States in its reckless moves for a North-targeted nuclear war” and requested the discontinuation of “joint nuclear war drills they stage with outside forces.” (South Korea and the United States hold regular joint military drills, which North Korea consistently portrays as preparation for an invasion.) But it is Kim himself who wants to hold South Korea’s hosting of the Winter Olympics hostage to his demand for global acknowledgement that the North has (illegally) become a nuclear weapons state.
It’s not the first time Kim has used a sporting event in this way. In 2014, Kim suddenly sent three top-ranking officials to the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games held in Incheon to celebrate a better-than-expected performance by North Korean athletes. That visit did not immediately result in progress in inter-Korean relations, but two senior members of the delegation, Hwang Pyung So and Kim Yang Gon, returned for marathon inter-Korean negotiations in August 2015. Those talks aimed at diffusing a different crisis: South Koreans had suffered casualties from a North Korean landmine placed at a post near the demilitarized zone between the two countries, and the South had resumed propaganda broadcasts at the DMZ.
Moon administration proposals for inter-Korean dialogue have been categorically rejected by the North since Moon came into office in May of 2017. Hwang and Kim Yang Gon, North Korea’s senior participants in the August 2015 talks, are no longer on the scene. The Moon administration contains many senior officials who want to revive the sort of inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation that South Korea pursued when Kim Jong Il led the North, but they are hard-pressed to find holdovers still in power under Kim Jong Un. Should talks actually take place, South Korea will have a chance to learn more about who Kim Jong Un trusts to manage inter-Korean dialogue.
But the very offer of talks is an unwelcome reminder that despite South Korea’s international success as a top-ranked global economy, the country remains hobbled both by its rough neighborhood and its exasperating northern neighbor. It exposes Moon’s weaknesses and South Korea’s diplomatic and political constraints, especially as Kim Jong Un tries to generate friction between Presidents Moon and Trump. Both Moon and Trump have put a good face on the relationship despite their ideological and personality differences, but North Korea’s dialogue offer may attempt to exploit the tactical differences between them over how to handle North Korea.
For instance, Moon has already publicly stated his desire last month to postpone annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises that normally would be ramping up during the Olympic games. The Trump administration may find a way to accommodate such a request while maintaining the international pressure campaign against North Korea. Further North Korean demands for delays in joint military exercises, though, could generate tensions between Seoul and Washington.
The Moon administration has also raised questions in recent weeks about the validity of its predecessor’s February 2016 closing of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a business production zone located inside North Korea in which South Korean companies provided infrastructure and knowhow and North Korea had provided labor. The complex was shut down following North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in January 2016. Any attempt to reopen it now would be seen as a direct blow to the economic sanctions drive that would likely violate UN Security Council resolutions on North Korean exports, and would generate strong opposition from the Trump administration.
As if the challenge of dealing with Kim Jong Un wasn’t enough, the Moon administration’s problems with its two closest neighbors threatens to cast a shadow over South Korea’s hosting of the games. Moon’s state visit to Beijing last month has failed to stabilize China-South Korea relations following the fallout from the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea, a U.S.-provided missile defense system China worries is aimed at its own nuclear arsenal. China has restored a ban on Chinese group tours to Seoul, and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s participation in the Pyeongchang opening ceremonies is unconfirmed. Likewise, the Moon administration’s announcement last week of the results of a review of a controversial agreement on how to address “comfort women”—who served as sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II—has decreased the likelihood of Japanese Prime Minister’s Shinzo Abe’s Olympic attendance as well.
Moon now faces a moment that will define his presidency as he prepares to host a high-profile international event in a tough neighborhood. That was going to be fraught to begin with. Now he faces the added problem that his own near-term political goals could trap him into concessions that might weaken South Korea’s alliance with the United States.