Diplomacy at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics
The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics is still ongoing and while people watch amazed at the feats of the athletes, we should remember that the games have been affected by the ongoing tensions between South Korea and North Korea — including the ongoing missile crisis in the region. It was only in January 2018, after their first high-level talks in over two years that North Korea agreed to participate in the games.
The fact that both Koreas entered together under a Korean Unification flag is a huge step in decreasing tensions between the two countries. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has favored a peaceful reunification between the two Koreas and has repeatedly called on peace talks with North Korea. At the start of the Olympics, Moon shook hands with Kim Yo-jong — the head of the country’s propaganda department and sister of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un — which marks the first time since the Korean War where a member of the ruling Kim dynasty visited South Korea.
However there have been opponents to North Korea’s participation, and they have valid points. South Korean critics have referred to the Olympics as the “Pyongyang Olympics,” arguing that the government was attempting to use the event as a way to spread pro-North Korean sentiments. Similarly, Japan’s foreign affairs minister Taro Kono warned South Korea to be wary of North Korea’s “charm offensive” and not to ease its pressure on the country.
North Korea’s actions could, however, have been influenced by the sanctions. According to an editorial in Chosun Ilbo, a major right-leaning South Korean news publication, North Korea may see a drop in exports of up to 90 percent this year. North Korea’s participation may be influenced by the need to weaken the impact of the sanctions. Moon should be careful not to fall into any traps in North Korea’s recent diplomatic actions.
US Vice President Mike Pence was also in South Korea for the Olympics, but according to a senior diplomatic source close to North Korea, the trip was “a missed opportunity.” During the opening ceremony, Pence said that he chose to actively ignore Kim, saying that he “didn't believe it was proper for the United States of America to give any countenance or attention in that form to someone who's not merely the sister of the dictator but is the leader of the propaganda effort.”
Pence’s decision was affected by Pyeongyang’s alleged human rights violations, citing the country’s political prisons and the execution of Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong-Un’s uncle, and the killing of Kim Jong Nam, the leader’s half-brother. Before arriving in South Korea, Pence vowed more sanctions and more pressure on Pyongyang. He also brought along Fred Warmbier, the father of an American college student who died after brutal mistreatment while imprisoned in North Korea — a move that has been called a “defamation campaign” by the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies.
As athletes from the Koreas marched into the stadium during the opening ceremony and their leaders applauded, Pence remained in his seat. If Pence was representing the Trump administration, then his actions show blatant disrespect. If Pence really wanted to denuclearize North Korea, then he should have appreciated the effort put in to bringing a unified Korean team together. Even so, Pence has recently signaled a willingness to hold preliminary talks with North Korea without dropping Washington’s “maximum security campaign,” but some form of goodwill towards the North has to be seen from US representatives if they want to hold talks.
The Olympics may be a step toward the right direction in preventing international conflict, but what should be a concern is what happens after the Olympics. There may be some relaxed tensions between the two Koreas right now, but some of it should remain if they want to hold talks.