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The Korean peninsula after the Olympic detente

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North Korean ice hockey player Hwang Chung Gum and South Korean bobsledder Won Yun-jong carry the unification flag during the opening ceremony (Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon).

In Brief

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang have grabbed the attention of the entire world. Athletes on the ice rinks and slopes have had to share the media spotlight with North Korea’s charm offensive.

But after the Korean games, have the chances for peace and stability in Northeast Asia been given a lift?


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The Olympic detente seemed to come out of nowhere. Tensions boiled high throughout 2017 as North Korea intensified its missile development program (launching 23 missiles over 16 tests), conducted its biggest nuclear explosion yet and employed agents to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam in a chemical weapon attack at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

As North Korea advanced its nuclear and weapons delivery capabilities, US President Donald Trump heightened tensions through his war of words with Kim. Trump’s threats to unleash ‘fire and fury’ and to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea unhelpfully distorted the line between US deterrence measures, which aim to prevent North Korean military provocation, and the possibility of US pre-emptive attacks, which seriously risk descending into violent, out-of-control conflict. The Trump administration’s dangerous thinking on North Korea was showcased as it pulled Victor Cha as its nominee for Ambassador to Seoul. This was because Cha opposed the so-called ‘bloody nose strategy’, which proposes a limited pre-emptive strike against North Korea to shock it into appreciating US strength by demonstrating the risks to Pyongyang of triggering a devastating war.

As the world worried it might be edging toward nuclear war, the Olympic detente — including the two Koreas’ marching together under a ‘unified flag’ and fielding a joint women’s ice hockey team — came, for most. as a huge relief.

Some analysts criticised South Korean President Moon Jae-in for taking the bait of North Korea’s charm offensive. This line of thinking assumes that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons and suggests that the North’s participation in the games might give it sanctions relief and cement its nuclear status. That argument neglects the care South Korea has taken to comply with the letter and spirit of the sanctions and coordinate with allies. North Korea was the only nation whose athletes did not receive Samsung smartphones, and the joint Korean women’s ice hockey team was forced to find a sponsor other than Nike for fear that Nike items would be thought to constitute luxury goods under the provisions of the sanctions. South Korea was careful also to obtain necessary exemptions from the United States and the UN Security Council for those members of the North Korean political delegation subject to a travel ban, for the transport which brought the North’s athletes to the South, and for the funds to cover the North’s hotel bill. Crucially, none of these provisions affect the pain of the sanctions that the North is beginning to feel back home.

In our lead article this week, Gi-wook Shin and Joyce Lee explain why, despite the risks, Moon was wise to take this Olympic gamble. Moon bet that North Korea’s participation ‘would alleviate the possibility of a North Korean provocation during the events and would build crucial momentum for peace on the Korean Peninsula’.

The inclusion of Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong as part of the North’s delegation served to highlight the diplomatic importance of the event. She became the first member of the ruling Kim family to set foot in the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953, and while at the games she delivered an invitation for South Korean President Moon Jae-in to attend an inter-Korean summit in the North at the earliest possible date. If realised this would be only the third-ever inter-Korean summit (with previous summits in 2000 and 2007) and would make Moon the first world leader to meet with Kim Jong-un.

Despite US Vice President Mike Pence’s ‘determination not to make the first visit from a member of the Kim dynasty to South Korea a welcoming one’, Moon’s bet is on the table with a shot. The Olympic moment appears to have helped him to convince the United States to shift its position on talks. The Trump administration had previously insisted that it would not engage in talks until North Korea made real concessions on its nuclear program. Pence has now reportedly agreed with Moon that so long as no rewards or sanctions relief are given for simply talking, the door is open for South Korea and the United States to sit down with the North Koreans. This has been labelled ‘maximum pressure and engagement at the same time’.

Shin and Lee conclude that Moon now needs to ‘reassure his worried friends … that he has a clear denuclearisation agenda. He needs to show he will not allow Kim Jong-un to hijack the driver’s seat and lead the international community to Kim’s desired destination: the recognition of a nuclear North Korea. The real test for Moon’s leadership begins now’.

If this opportunity to engage North Korea is to be capitalised on, Moon will need to ensure the credibility both of the negotiation process and of the guarantees given to North Korea about its post-denuclearisation future.

Credibility of the negotiation process may best be realised, as Hitoshi Tanaka explains, through a ‘P3C’ approach — pressure, coordination, contingency planning and communication channels.

Continued and patient pressure through sanctions is needed to demonstrate to North Korea that it will not be allowed to survive with its nuclear weapons. Coordination must ensure that North Korea is not given room to drive wedges and win premature sanctions relief. Contingency planning needs to ‘prepare for a worst-case scenario on the Korean Peninsula’ including how to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons as quickly and efficiently as possible in the event of a collapse and deal with possible refugee flows. An effective communication channel, ‘including with Kim Jong-un’s inner circle’, is needed to avoid miscalculation and to relay to the North leadership that if it enters credible negotiations and denuclearises it will be allowed to survive and welcomed into the international community.

North Korea will require guarantees for its post-denuclearisation economic and military survival. A comprehensive resolution will need to include a permanent peace treaty, the normalisation of North Korea’s diplomatic relations with the United States and Japan, and international economic cooperation that includes preparation for North Korean membership of global institutions. Without iron-clad guarantees that the United States won’t take North Korea’s nuclear weapons now and pursue regime change later, such as a modern-day Potsdam Agreement in Northeast Asia, negotiations risk falling into the same traps as they have done in the past.

If the credibility of the negotiation process and North Korea’s post-denuclearisation future can be guaranteed, the peacebuilding intent of the ancient Olympic spirit could yet be carried into modern times.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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