Photo by Republic of Korea/Kang Min-Seok
Asia-Pacific / Korea

The Game of Politics

Less than a day after Kim Jong-un made his New Year’s Day address, in which he suggested the possibility of North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Games, President Moon Jae-in of South Korea accepted the offer with seeming alacrity. At the Opening Ceremonies, the world watched—marvelled, perhaps—as the two Koreas marched together under one flag. The symbolic flag continued to enjoy a conspicuous presence throughout the Games, namely during the women’s ice hockey games where the first ever inter-Korean Olympic team competed. Yet underneath the veneer of reconciliation that was displayed during the Games lies a political feebleness that Moon’s administration demonstrated throughout negotiations with its North Korean counterpart. Post Olympics era, a greater assertiveness on the part of South Korea will be imperative.

In retrospect, I believe that far too many concessions were made on the part of South Korea without sufficient reciprocal measures from North Korea. Given North Korea’s ideologies and impending economic atrophy due to tightening international sanctions, South Korea was well-positioned to make certain demands. The goal of negotiations should have been not conversation itself but the denuclearization of North Korea. Yet when the chief North Korean delegate protested a South Korean official’s mention of the resumption of denuclearization discussions, the Moon administration immediately acquiesced and kept the conversation as respectful as possible. And South Korea happily agreed to delay the joint military practice with the US. In effect, the Moon administration conceded a customary practice South Korea shares with its long-time ally without an adequate quid pro quo from a mortal rival.

To be sure, there have been positive developments. First, there was the momentous opening of the Panmunjom military hotline, which restored a channel of direct dialogue and signaled a possible thaw in relations between the two Koreas. Furthermore, there is a sense of hope that such diplomacy can lay the foundation for further conversations, and thereby ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula and beyond. However, many South Koreans, inured to decades of North Korea’s aggression, are hesitant to share that perspective. For younger ones, including myself, events such as the North’s torpedo attacks or rocket barrage have had a formative influence. Moreover, even the unequivocal beneficence on part of former South Korean leaders, such as President Roh’s Sunshine Policy—a policy of “comprehensive engagement”—failed to transform North Korea’s hostile ways.

Although some in the media enjoy rendering Kim Jong-un as a mercurial madman, he is, in fact, a deceitful leader capable of scheming political chicanery behind closed doors. North Korea’s participation in the Olympics was desirable for the Kim regime in threefold ways. First, the North did not want its regime to be eclipsed by any country, especially by its southern enemy; certainly, it enjoyed much of the spotlight throughout the Games. Secondly, North Korea wished to “distract attention from the North’s rapidly advancing nuclear and missile programs.” North Korea also knew that its participation in Pyeongchang was likely to grant it a respite from “tightening sanctions or the threat of American attacks.” Finally, its participation could alienate South Korea from the US and vice versa, thereby undermining the US-South Korea relations for its own benefit. North Korea, all too cognizant of these advantages, was shrewd enough to impose itself on the international sporting event in Pyeongchang.

With both the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games officially coming to an end and a summit forthcoming, President Moon is faced with the task of resolving the apparent disharmony between the United States and South Korea in their policies toward North Korea. At this critical juncture, the South Korean government cannot disavow its relationship with the U.S. in favor of ties to North Korea. For the North, nuclear armament and the suppression of the Republic of Korea is not merely an ulterior goal, but rather an ultimate objective. In order to ensure the geopolitical stability in the Korean Peninsula, Northeast Asia, and beyond, the Moon administration must reaffirm its alliance with the US—who has proven its commitment to providing Seoul with political, military, and economic support—rather than to a regime hell bent on obliterating its estranged southern neighbor, despite what a unified flag may indicate.