Never waste a good olympics


Picture of Javier Solana
Javier Solana

President of ESADE Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics, former EU high representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, former secretary-general of NATO and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Javier Solana is President of the ESADEgeo Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics and Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution, High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union (1999-2009), Secretary General of NATO (1995-1999) and Trustee of Friends of Europe

Despite the secrecy that shrouds the North Korean regime, it is wrong to say that the behaviour of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is completely unpredictable. In the run-up to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, one thing was clear as day: Kim was determined to upstage South Korea. The question was not whether he would try to do it, but how.

During most major sporting events hosted by South Korea in recent decades, the North had followed a disruptive strategy. And so, this year – which incidentally marked the thirtieth anniversary of North Korea’s boycott of the Seoul Summer Olympic Games – many people feared a repeat was in the cards. This time around, however, Kim attempted to steal the show in an altogether different way, by pursuing rapprochement instead of open confrontation. The rest of the world now faces a critical choice: we can either let our suspicions run wild or explore the possibilities that this sudden change of course holds. Unfortunately, the former of the two approaches has had too many champions.

To be sure, North Korea’s Olympic charm offensive served as propaganda. Kim Yo-jong, the Supreme Leader’s sister, was the de facto head of Pyongyang’s high-level delegation, drawing comparisons to none other than Ivanka Trump. In addition, a North Korean cheerleading squad made up of over 200 women grabbed the media spotlight. Their synchronised enthusiasm was on full display during the opening ceremony – in which the two Koreas marched under the unification flag – and during the matches played by a pan-Korean women’s hockey team. North Korea’s window-dressing led some in the South to pour scorn on the Games by referring to them as the “Pyongyang Olympics”.

Isolating the Hermit Kingdom even further is unlikely to yield positive results

Many observers were quick to declare North Korea’s victory in the PR arena, arguing that the regime’s human rights violations had been shamefully whitewashed. Yet general awareness of North Korean atrocities – such as its forced labour camps – arguably increased during the Olympics, precisely because of the proliferation of critical news pieces. Concerns about a North Korean PR triumph, voiced by many, including the Trump administration, are thus overblown.

Some human rights activists have called on the International Olympic Committee to prevent North Korea from participating in future Games. That would be wrongheaded. Isolating the Hermit Kingdom even further is unlikely to yield positive results. Our strategy should be tough, yet creative, and we should not refrain from reaching out to the North Koreans.

In this regard, the outcome of last year’s presidential election in South Korea was encouraging. Moon Jae-in won on a platform of engagement with North Korea, along with domestic reform. The conservatives, after their electoral debacle, have strived to regain some ground by taking a highly partisan approach to the North Korean nuclear threat. But in criticising Moon’s engagement policy, they fail to see that the current president is more of a pragmatist than his liberal predecessors were, and is unlikely to fall victim to any arcane North Korean plot. After all, it was Moon who patented the idea of the “Peace Olympics”, not Kim.

The Olympic thaw also laid bare an intergenerational chasm in South Korea. Although the youth form President Moon’s main support base, most of them objected to the idea of North and South Korea playing on a united hockey team at the Olympics. Younger generations in the South have a more meritocratic mind-set and – more importantly – fewer ties with North Korea. In other words, the window of opportunity for reunification may be closing. The Pyeongchang Olympic Games may have represented not only the best chance for reunification, but also the last.

If the world fails to take advantage of this rare opening, we will find ourselves skating on very thin ice

So far, 2018 has been full of good news on the Korean peninsula. Since Kim’s conciliatory New Year’s Day address, North Korea has not carried out any missile or nuclear tests, and has conducted the first formal talks with the South in over two years. This week, a South Korean delegation even visited Pyongyang, and both sides agreed to hold a summit meeting between their leaders in April – only the third of its kind since the end of the Korean War in 1953. The two countries also seem willing to continue down the path of sports diplomacy: there is talk of them bidding to co-host the 2021 Asian Winter Games. In sum, most signs indicate that Pyeongchang 2018 was not merely a stage for North Korea’s propaganda campaign.

However, the current détente will face a tough test when the Paralympic Winter Games (which North Korea will participate in for the first time) finish in mid-March. This will clear the way for the resumption of US-South Korean joint military drills, and perhaps also for the resumption of hostile North Korean behaviour. Against this backdrop, other countries – chiefly the US – should avoid rocking the boat, and should set their priorities straight. At this time, US officials cannot realistically expect North Korea to commit to unconditional denuclearisation. Kim’s reported openness to eventual denuclearisation – dubious as this openness may be – constitutes in itself a valid starting point for negotiations.

Both North Korea and the US have recently signalled that they may be willing to talk directly to one another. One should hope that they are also willing to listen. A popular saying is “never waste a good crisis,” and neither should we waste a good Olympics. If the world fails to take advantage of this rare opening, we will find ourselves skating on very thin ice.

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