The Winter Olympic Games haven’t started yet, but North Korea already looks like the biggest winner.
It started with a phone call from the North via a hotline between Seoul and Pyongyang, which had gone dead silent for more than two years. The North expressed interest in joining the Winter Olympic Games.
I have to give the “Little Rocket Man,” Kim Jong Un, credit for choosing his timing so strategically. Only a month ago, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed the toughest sanctions to date against North Korea, which would further suppress Pyongyang’s energy supplies and the usage and exploitation of North Korean labor overseas.
Pyongyang quickly denounced the latest sanctions as an “act of war.” The international community had been hopeful that this latest round of sanctions might be tough enough to get North Korea back to the negotiation table. But the Little Rocket Man came up with an ingenious strategy to break out this economic isolation.
He recognizes that the Winter Olympic games in South Korea provides him with a perfect stage, a rare opportunity to promote his own propaganda and shape world opinion about him and his regime, at little cost to him. To make his strategy work, he needs a willing and foolish partner, and he quickly found one in South Korea’s President Moon Jae In.
Moon is a former student activist and human rights lawyer, and served as chief presidential secretary to liberal President Roh Moo-hyun (in office from 2003 to 2008). Roh was a firm believer in the “sunshine policy”– softening North Korea’s hostility towards the South by encouraging interaction and economic assistance, a policy based on a traditional Korean cultural belief in giving enemies gifts to prevent them from causing harm. While pro-engagement with Pyongyang, Roh was less friendly to America and its regional allies. In his memoir, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates quoted Roh telling Gates that, “the biggest security threats in Asia were the United States and Japan.”
Based on the South Korean government’s own analysis, its sunshine policy was a failure. Decades of massive economic aid and peaceful engagement neither bettered the life of the destitute North Koreans nor did it slow down Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon development or its hostility towards Seoul. Instead, the economic aid and peaceful engagement from Seoul provided North Korea with time and resources to continue accelerating its nuclear weapon development programs.
Yet, Moon appears not to be heeding the historical lesson from his former boss. When the northern dictator called, Moon responded quickly and enthusiastically. The two sides swiftly met and reached an agreement, without much negotiation. Despite the South having the upper hand, Moon caved to all of Kim Jong Un’s demands:
- North Korea’s nuclear weapon development wasn’t discussed at all.
- The annual joint U.S. and South Korea military exercises will be delayed.
- The North will send athletes to participate in the games including its women’s hockey team, which didn’t qualify but will play jointly with the South Korean women’s hockey team.
- The North will also send a visitors’ group, a Taekwondo demonstration team, a press corps and entertainers, including Kim’s favorite all-girl band, to perform at the Olympics.
What did Seoul get in return? Pretty much nothing. Yet like his former boss, Moon is hopeful his concession will present a “precious chance” to bring reconciliation and restart talks between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile program.
Such thinking is naive at best and dangerous at worst. He should remember that 30 years ago, when Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, North Korea and South Korea marched under one banner, and the world was hopeful then that such a symbolic gesture would open the door for peace in the Korean Peninsula. But the so called Olympic diplomacy failed just like the sunshine policy.
Since then, North Korea has conducted a series of successful nuclear tests, including testing its hydrogen bomb last year. Technically, North Korea is already a nuclear power. Pyongyang has also made progress toward making a nuclear warhead small enough to put on an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), with the goal of reaching the U.S. There is also evidence that Pyongyang is working with other “State Sponsors of Terrorism” such as Iran in the illegal weapon trades and helping each other with their own nuclear weapon development.
Thus, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon program has presented a grave security threat not only to people in the U.S. and South Korea and Japan, but also to the rest of the world. In addition to nuclear weapons, Kim’s regime is also a known state sponsor of terrorism, known for its acts in terrorizing its own people, conducting assassination on foreign soil and kidnapping foreign nationals.
After years of complacency, the new U.S. administration under President Trump, finally increased both the severity of economic sanctions and its tough rhetoric against North Korea. History teaches us that regimes like Pyongyang only bow down to an iron fist, not to Mr. Nice Guy. This is the time that the U.S. and its allies need to remain firm and unrelenting. But letting North Korea attend the Olympics on Kim’s term will buy him additional time and resources to continue down the path he’s on and make reining him in that much harder.
Already, Kim has won his pre-game PR. Early this week, he sent Hyon Song Wol, a Pyongyang pop star who heads an all-girl band handpicked by himself (known for their short skirts, high-heels and shameless songs of praise to their dear leader), to lead a delegation to South Korea and scout for a venue for their music performance in the upcoming winter games. Hyon triggered an international media frenzy. Everyone was talking about her pretty face and her fur coat as if she represents what the North is all about.
No one talks about nuclear weapon anymore. Few seem to remember that ordinary North Koreans are still starving and laboring themselves to death. That’s exactly what Kim Jong Un hoped to achieve, and President Moon handed it to Kim on a gold platter. The media reaction to Hyon’s visit is only a preview of the kind of PR dividend Pyongyang will reap in the upcoming Winter Olympic Games.
So forget about the medal count. Pyongyang will come out of the Winter Olympics as the biggest winner.
Kim Jong Un may be young, and at times seemingly crazy. But he has proven to be a far shrewder politician than his South Korean counterpart. Moon ought to be reminded that doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results, is the definition of insanity, not a basis for a sound and effective diplomacy.
Kim Hyon-hui, a former spy for North Korea who planted the bomb that blew up a South Korean passenger jet in 1987 on the direct order from Kim Jong Un’s father, recently warned the South about Kim’s dark motives behind his Olympic overture. For the sake of the safety and security of his own people, Moon needs to understand the true nature of the monster he is dealing with and take a firm stand, not play Mr. Nice Guy.