The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, which drew to a close on Feb 25, offered the two sides on the Korean Peninsula a chance to de-escalate tensions. The international community is closely watching the developments after the Games.
The Pyeongchang Olympics was an event where “breakthroughs” happened for the two Koreas. Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea leader Kim Jong-un, became the first member of the DPRK’s ruling Kim family to visit the Republic of Korea (ROK). As her brother’s special envoy, she delivered his invitation to ROK President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang.
The two Koreas marched under a pro-unification flag and fielded a unified women’s ice hockey team at the Games.
The ROK allowed Kim Yong-chol, vice-chairman of the DPRK’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee, to lead a DPRK delegation to attend the closing ceremony of the Games. The DPRK general is blacklisted by both the United States and the ROK for his role in the torpedoing of an ROK warship in 2010, with the loss of 46 seamen. Pyongyang denies any involvement.
Also, the US agreed with the ROK to delay their annual joint military drill until after the Winter Olympics, whose Paralympics ends on March 18. Militaries of the two countries usually hold exercises, known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, in the ROK in March and April.
The drills, which can involve as many as 17,000 US troops and more than 300,000 ROK soldiers, are denounced by the DPRK as preparations for invasion.
Whether the recent cooling of tensions before and during the Winter Olympics will lead to wider contacts is unclear.
On the one hand, the countries concerned were talking about holding dialogue. The ROK asked the US to lower the bar for talks. The DPRK said it was open to dialogue with the US, but US President Donald Trump responded to Pyongyang’s offer of negotiations by saying he was willing to talk only under the “right conditions”.
Japan, which always dances to Washington’s tune, plans to take part in informal meetings with the DPRK. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump agreed in phone talks on Feb 14 that there would be “no meaningful dialogue” unless the DPRK agreed on “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization”.
On the other hand, the US has imposed new sanctions against the DPRK. Japan is mulling following suit and calling for maintaining “maximum” pressure on the DPRK, claiming that “dialogue for the sake of dialogue would be meaningless”.
At the meeting with Moon before attending the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, Abe asked the ROK to quickly resume its joint military drill with the US after the Pyeongchang Olympics, without scaling it down. Moon dismissed Abe’s request, calling it a violation of his country’s sovereignty.
But the sounds of guns will be heard again as negotiations between the US and ROK to stage the postponed military drill are moving forward. Marc Knapper, the current charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Seoul — the US has had no ambassador to the ROK for over a year — said in February that the drills would be conducted in April.
Tokyo and Washington have kept a tough stance on Pyongyang, while Seoul wants engagement.
The Trump administration’s policies on the ROK and DPRK cause concern even for US foreign policy experts. Trump has scrapped his nomination of Victor Cha as US ambassador to the ROK allegedly because Cha and Trump are divided on DPRK policy. Cha, a Bush administration official and Georgetown University professor, warned the Trump administration officials against a “bloody nose” military strike against the DPRK.
Joseph Yun, the US State Department’s top diplomat in charge of DPRK policy, decided to retire, to many people’s surprise.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement that the US diplomatic efforts regarding the DPRK “will continue based on our maximum pressure campaign to isolate the DPRK until it agrees to begin credible talks toward a denuclearized Korean Peninsula”.
Though Yun was said to leave for personal reasons, his abrupt departure raises questions and adds to uncertainty over the Trump administration’s DPRK policy. He is believed to be an advocate for dialogue and for diplomacy.
Sports have changed the world in the past. China invited the US ping-pong squad that was in Japan in April 1971 for World Table Tennis Championships to play a few games in Beijing. The US table tennis players became the first Americans to visit Beijing since 1949.
The ping-pong exchange made a huge impact, transforming American perceptions of “Red China” and setting the scene for then US president Richard Nixon’s momentous trip to China in 1972.
Though high-ranking officials from the US and DPRK attended the opening and closing ceremonies of the Pyeongchang Olympics — sitting just a few feet away from each other — the two sides did not have any interaction.
Moon has emphasized that a resumption of dialogue between the DPRK and the US “is absolutely necessary for developments in inter-Korean relations”.
Both US Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke of a DPRK policy that is one of “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time”.
We have not seen the softer approach. The US should have direct talks with the DPRK, offering confidence-building initiatives aimed at inducing the DPRK’s eventual denuclearization.
But the US-ROK military drill is expected to increase tensions again.
The author is China Daily’s
bureau chief in Tokyo.