North Korea stirs complex emotions, as coverage of the Winter Olympics opening ceremony shows. Most of the coverage naturally focused the younger sister of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un, the first member of the ruling Kim family to set foot in South Korea. Of all the VIPs who attended the ceremony, Kim Yo-jong received the most attention, even being dubbed “the star” of the Olympics.
US Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, were the “bad guys”. Pence was criticised as arrogant and petty for refusing to greet the North Koreans or to stand as the two Korean teams entered together under the symbolic unification flag. Abe also refused to stand, and his talks with President Moon Jae-in had reportedly been frosty.
Moon, the host of the show, appeared at the centre of all the events, but received less attention than he deserved. Yet while Kim Yo-jong hogged the limelight, Moon accomplished much during the weekend.
Moon Jae-in came to office in May amid soaring tensions between the US and North Korea over the North’s nuclear weapons programme. As tensions rose, President Trump and Kim Jong-un exchanged blood-chilling threats that sent shivers down the spines of seasoned diplomats. The US demanded that North Korea give up its weapons programme, something the North has consistently refused to do. These positions predate Trump and Kim, but the speed of North Korea’s progress and Trump’s hardline stance have taken tensions to a new level.
Amid the rapid rise in temperature, President Moon has taken a cool and pragmatic course. He has focused intently on denuclearisation through negotiation while cooperating closely with the US. Throughout 2017, North Korea largely ignored Moon in the hope that it could scare the US into recognising it as a nuclear power. North Korea’s long-standing strategy has been to delegitimise South Korea by dealing directly with the US.
The US, meanwhile, has demanded that North Korea halt its nuclear and missile programmes as a pre-condition to any talks. North Korea has continued the tests and the US has responded by asking the UN to impose ever-harsher economic sanctions. The UN Security Council has agreed to US requests each time. To bolster the sanctions, the US has kept the possibility of a military response on the table and, more recently, has stepped up criticism of North Korea’s human rights record.
By the end of 2017, North Korea appeared boxed in, which explains why Kim Jong-un pounced on the Olympics as an opportunity to reach out to South Korea.
Scenes of the entire US government giving a North Korean defector a standing ovation at the end of the State of the Union Address in January show that the US has moved closer to a war footing. Kim would no doubt like to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US, but his more immediate need is finding a way to start negotiations without losing face. This explains why Kim has invited Moon to a summit in Pyongyang.
But President Moon’s pragmatic course has roused domestic criticism from the left and right. The hard left in South Korea is virulently anti-American and believes that the two Koreas should stand together against American aggression. The hard right is passionately pro-American and believes that South Korea should try to topple the North’s government.
Moon accepted the invitation to visit Pyongyang under the right conditions. He also recommended that North Korea reach out to the US. This shows the North Koreans that there is no wedge between South Korea and the US and reminds them that, as Vice President Pence’s attitude suggested, time may be running out. Trump has said that he is open to talking, and Moon now finds himself at the centre of efforts to get talks moving.
The media love a flashy story, and Kim Yo-jong provided plenty of flash, but the real star of the show was Moon. His pragmatic approach has set in motion events that could lead to substantive negotiations for denuclearisation. History is littered with missed chances for peace; it is now up to North Korea to seize the moment and move forward.
Robert Fouser, a former assoc professor of Korean language at Seoul National University, writes on Korean issues from Pawtucket, Rhode Island.