Olympic Détente Upends U.S. Strategy on North Korea
Posted January 17, 2018 8:57 p.m. EST
Updated January 17, 2018 9:00 p.m. EST
SEOUL, South Korea — North and South Korea reached an agreement Wednesday for their athletes to march together under one flag at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics next month, a powerful gesture of reconciliation that further complicates President Donald Trump’s strategy for dealing with the nuclear-armed government of Kim Jong Un.
South Korea, the host of the games, said it hoped a partnership in sports could contribute to a political thaw after years of high tensions on the Korean Peninsula. It came even as the prospect of war over the North’s nuclear and ballistic missile tests has loomed large.
For the White House, however, the budding détente scrambles its strategy of pressuring the North, with sanctions and threats of military action, to give up its nuclear arsenal. This latest gesture of unity, the most dramatic in a decade, could add to fears in Washington that Pyongyang is making progress on a more far-reaching agenda.
White House officials warn that the ultimate goal of Kim is to evict U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula and to reunify the two Koreas under a single flag. They have cited that long-held goal to buttress their argument that Kim cannot be deterred peacefully as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War.
While a onetime Olympics ceremony is hardly a step toward reunification, the image of athletes marching behind a “unified Korea” flag is a symbolic manifestation of what worries Trump’s aides. And the prospect of crowds from North and South Korea cheering together would be a striking contrast to the threats of war from Trump.
The White House this week welcomed the announcement but played down its significance, noting that it was not the first time that athletes from the two Koreas had competed together.
“Let’s hope that the experience gives the North Korean athletes a small taste of freedom and that it rubs off,” said Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “North Korean propaganda is in a category all its own,” he added. “It is not surprising that North Korea is sending more cheerleaders and musicians than athletes.”
That emphasis on propaganda, other officials said, was in keeping with North Korea’s longer-term goal of reunification.
In addition to marching together, the two Koreas will field a joint women’s hockey team at the games, which begin on Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang. It will be the first time the two countries have combined for an Olympics, and the first unified team of any kind since their athletes played together in a table tennis championship and a youth soccer tournament in 1991.
The Olympic agreement could bolster President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who has been pushing for dialogue with the North. “This will be a great opportunity to thaw the frozen relations,” he said during a visit to the training camp for South Korean athletes.
“If we unify our team with the North’s, it won’t necessarily improve our team’s strength very much,” Moon said. “It will even require extra efforts to build up teamwork with the North Korean players. But if the two Koreas unify their teams and play a great match together, that itself will be long remembered as a historic moment.”
Few expected that the breakthrough in sports diplomacy would lead to a broader relaxation of the decades-old standoff over the North’s nuclear weapon programs. But it provided a welcome reprieve for South Koreans who have grown alarmed and weary over the tensions and relentless talk of war.
Trump has threatened the North with “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” should it put the security of Americans and their allies at risk, while Kim has called Trump a lunatic.
Despite its wariness, the White House has been careful not to dismiss the talks between the North and the South, provided the two sides stick to issues like security at the Olympics. Trump said on Wednesday that he would be open to talks with Kim himself, though he questioned the value of such a meeting.
“I’d sit down, but I’m not sure that sitting down will solve the problem,” Trump said in an interview with Reuters.
He warned that while North Korea was not yet capable of delivering a ballistic missile to the United States, “they’re close — and they get closer every day.” In the interview, Trump was uncharacteristically critical of Russia, saying it had weakened the global sanctions against North Korea, even as China was doing more.
“What China is helping us with, Russia is denting,” he said. “In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.” Analysts said the agreement would be enormously popular in South Korea. Strong ethnic nationalism compels people in both Koreas to cheer for each other’s athletes when they compete against non-Korean teams, especially Japan.
“We’re at one of these moments where there is this emotional, if not irrational, exuberance at the prospect of North Korean athletes coming south,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, a Korea expert at the Brookings Institution, who is visiting Seoul this week.
A previous such moment came in 1991, when a unified and underdog Korean team won the gold medal in the women’s team competition over China in the World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan. The unified women’s ice hockey team will face Japan on Feb. 14 in Pyeongchang.
The problem, Pollack said, is that North Korea “has put down clear markers about what it wants in return. If the expectation is that North Korea is going to get economic goodies by acting nice, they’re not.”
For the United States, the fear has been that North Korea’s gestures will drive a wedge between it and its ally, South Korea. So far, the two allies have stayed in sync, said Daniel R. Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs in the Obama administration.
“But it will be harder and harder to insure that South Korea and the U.S. stay closely aligned,” he said. “You have a fundamental tension between a progressive government in Seoul and a hawkish government in Washington.”
Moon proposed in June that the two Koreas form a unified team for the Olympics, but the suggestion was not taken seriously until Kim used his New Year’s Day speech to propose dialogue with the South and to discuss his country’s participation in the games. That led to a series of talks in the border village of Panmunjom. In an earlier round of negotiations, the North agreed to send a 140-member orchestra to play during the Olympics. On Wednesday, South Korean officials said the North’s delegation would include at least 550 people. The plan is for the North’s athletes to enter the South over a land border on Feb. 1.
So far, the only North Korean athletes to qualify for the games are a pairs figure skating team. North Korea missed an Oct. 31 deadline to accept invitations from South Korea and the International Olympic Committee to join the games. But the international body has said it remains willing to consider wild-card entries for North Korean athletes.
The two Koreas negotiated to share some of the 1988 Seoul Olympics after South Korea won the right to play host to the games. But the talks collapsed, and the North bombed a South Korean passenger jet in 1987 in an attempt to disrupt them.