North Korea’s Olympic diplomacy aimed to put a friendly face on the regime, but the world should not be taken in by Pyongyang’s dangerous charm offensive. The country’s only aim, it seems, is to ease the sting of sanctions without giving up its status as a nuclear state.
North Korea sent a high-ranking delegation to both the opening and closing ceremonies of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The latter was led by Kim Yong Chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee and head of the party’s United Front Department. The delegation’s visit drew a fierce outcry from conservatives in South Korea, not least because Kim is believed to have masterminded the attack on Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the South Korean navy patrol boat Cheonan in 2010.
In his meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Kim reportedly expressed the North’s willingness to start direct dialogue with the U.S., as well as its hopes for improvements in the North-South relationship.
Both the U.S. and North Korea sent official delegations to the opening ceremony of the games. It was later revealed that Pyongyang had initially wanted members of its delegation — including Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — to meet with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. That wish was conveyed to Pence through the official South Korean channel, and a meeting was planned. But Pyongyang reportedly called it off at the last minute, apparently deciding that a meeting with Pence, who is known for his hard-line stance toward North Korea, would not yield the results it hoped for.
Despite its failure to connect with the vice president, there can be little doubt that Pyongyang is seeking not only rapprochement with South Korea but also improved relations with the U.S. The question is whether the North’s maneuvering can lead to a productive dialogue that helps resolve the issue of its nuclear and missile programs.
From the start, Moon’s administration has been keen to mend fences with the North, hoping eventually to hold a bilateral summit. North Korea, eager to exploit this conciliatory stance, saw the Winter Olympics as the perfect opportunity to engineer a thaw that would help bring the country out of international isolation and end, or at the least undermine, sanctions against it.
To an extent, that is what happened. In offering to participate in the games, Pyongyang pressed Seoul into accepting visits by North Koreans blacklisted by sanctions, as well as the arrival of a ferry carrying artists and musicians for the event. South Korea also had to shoulder most of the cost of sending the North Korean delegation to the games. These steps might have violated sanctions.
The U.S. and South Korea have agreed to refrain from conducting joint military exercises during the Winter Olympics and Paralympics.
Pyongyang, however, is likely to call for an indefinite halt to such drills, and even present it as a precondition for beginning talks with either Seoul or Washington.
South Korea, the U.S. and other countries should not take North Korea’s conciliatory overtures at face value. There is no point engaging Pyongyang in dialogue unless it contributes to the denuclearization of North Korea. Shelving the issue of the regime’s nuclear and missile programs while talks are held would only give the regime time to raise the funds needed to pursue its military ambitions.
On Feb. 23, the U.S. imposed new sanctions against North Korea aimed primarily at blocking the country from illegally importing oil and other goods through ship-to-ship transfers. To prod the North into talks on relinquishing its nuclear arms, Japan, the U.S. and South Korea must first and foremost join forces to keep up the pressure on Pyongyang through the effective use of sanctions.