The world has reacted most interestingly to the participation of North Korean athletes in the Winter Olympics 2018, held in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Some have watched the diverse sports events, and others have carefully analysed the delicate public relations balancing act carried out by the North Korean administration.
Reporting from Gangneung, South Korea, Aimee Lewis of CNN has pointed out that the participation of a unified Korean ice hockey team has proven that “winning isn’t everything.”
This unified Korean women’s team became a tool for rapprochement. South Koreans of all generations gaily waved flags of a unified Korean peninsula. This Olympics gave the two countries of the Korean Peninsula reason to talk again after a year of escalating hostility over Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program. Few could have predicted such a dynamic at the beginning of 2017.
This historic turn of events started with North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam and Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong, the first member of Pyongyang’s ruling dynasty setting foot in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. After the match with Switzerland, leaders from both sides of Korea exchanged words with the unified team and posed with the team for photographs.
Nevertheless, many South Koreans mentioned to the international media that they hoped that the unified team could help improve the South’s understanding of the North. They interpreted this measure as a historic message of hope and peace. Commenting on this effort, Michael Madden, visiting scholar of the US-Korea Institute at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University stated that “the joint ice hockey team is something where they both derive a certain degree of good publicity even if they don’t win any medals. He also pointed out that “the North isn’t getting any money for this. Even if they don’t win anything there aren’t going to be any hard feelings about that. North Korea does not regard themselves as a great ice hockey powerhouse. It’s not a huge sport out there, they’re just happy to be part of the team.”
Jamie Tarabay has recalled that when South Korea hosted an Olympic Games in 1988, the last time round, the North tried its best to drive international attention away from Seoul. Pyongyang refused to attend the 1988 games and called for an international boycott, one that was albeit ignored by its communist patrons in Beijing and Moscow.
One can conclude that within this matrix, the Olympic program has in parallel included a charm offensive initiative versus a propaganda drive
In addition, North Korea spent billions of US dollars to put on the World Youth Festival in 1989 and tried to use this festival to demonstrate its doctrine of self-reliance. At that time, North Korea hosted delegates from more than 170 countries for a week of exhibitions, seminars, competitions, and folk performances.
It built a never-occupied 105-floor hotel, marble-lined subway stations, an Arc de Triomphe replica, and a stadium for seating 150,000 spectators. It also imported 1,000 luxury cars to accommodate the influx of expected foreigners. It was not only a huge drain on the North Korean economy, but also drew attention of the international media for its lack of success.
This time around, however, the North has gotten the kind of publicity money can’t buy.
Such a dynamics, while accepted by many in South Korea, appears to have raised concern among many in the manufacturing community and also in the US and Japan.
This has been reflected in the care being taken by the South Korean Administration and its president in their response by North Korea to move forward and engage more actively with the South. It has called for greater brinkmanship.
It may be recalled that the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, during his presidential campaign, had mentioned that, if elected, he wanted to be the leader “who built a peaceful relationship” between the two Koreas.
Consequently, it was not a great surprise when during his meeting with North Korean President’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong; he was presented with a formal invitation from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to travel to North Korea. This was considered as eventful as this would be the first North-South summit on the peninsula since 2007 when South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun -- in whose administration Moon served -- met with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il.
Such a prospective visit was, however, immediately interpreted by Korean analysts as a diplomatic coup for Moon -- whose decision to pursue warmer relations with the North stood in stark contrast with his conservative predecessor.
Moon’s immediate response to the invitation has been one of caution. His office has reported that such a meeting might take place after the two countries “create the right conditions,” and have also added that talks between North Korea and the US were also needed.
This indicates that Moon now needs to chart his way through tricky diplomatic waters. Moon has hailed the progress that has been made, but has also emphasized that there is also need for “a growing consensus on the need for dialogue between the US and North Korea,” which “will be able to lead to eventual denuclearization.”
The response of US Vice President Mike Pence’s Office to this evolving situation was conveyed by Alyssa Farah, his spokeswoman: “The Vice President is grateful that President Moon reaffirmed his strong commitment to the global maximum pressure campaign and for his support for continued sanctions.”
Pence is also reported to have said that “the fixed policy of the US is that we are going to continue with all options on the table to bring intensifying economic and diplomatic pressure to bear until North Korea, once and for all, completely and verifiably abandons its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program.”
It appears that the North Korean authorities have been following the situation with care. This has probably led Jo Yong Sam, a director general of the North Korean Foreign Ministry to state that his country had never “begged the US for dialogue” and was not about to start now.
One can conclude that within this matrix, the Olympic program has in parallel included a charm offensive initiative versus a propaganda drive, with nuclear ambitions at stake.
What remains to be seen is whether any of the relevant players will be ready for another round once the Winter Olympic Games are finished.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]