Pyeongchang Olympics: What to Make of North Korea’s Switching Tactics

Editor’s Note: For better or worse, the Pyeongchang Olympics has become famous as much for politics as for sports since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un agreed to send a delegation at the last minute. The question of what this all means is not easy to answer. The context is complicated; interpretations are numerous and contradictory.

Dr. Owen Miller is a lecturer in Korean Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. He addresses some of the key questions raised by the inter-Korean rapprochement. 

This opinion, first published on Study at SOAS Blog, was expanded on by Dr. Miller for Korea Exposé. Read the original here.


How significant is North Korea’s decision to send athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea?

The decision is very significant in the current context. It is easy to see why the South Korean president Moon Jae-in has leapt at this opportunity to lower tensions on the Korean peninsula.

By sending the titular head of state and senior official Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister and PR director, Kim Jong-un is making a strong gesture that he wants to improve inter-Korean ties.

When the centrist Moon Jae-in was elected president in South Korea last May, it offered a real opportunity to re-start North-South rapprochement, which has been frozen for over a decade, since North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and right-wing South Korean president Lee Myung-bak reversed his predecessor’s ‘Sunshine Policy.’

Moon’s own hopes for reconciliation were overshadowed by the confrontation between Trump and Kim Jong-un, which has been ongoing since early 2017. But it seems that the North Koreans have now decided the time is right to see if Moon is serious about improving relations.


But…is there more to the decision than meets the eye?

There is a history of North Korea switching tactics like this; shifting from raising tensions to suddenly making concessions and wanting to talk.

There is also a history of inter-Korean relations and North Korea-U.S. relations being out of sync with one another. A similar situation prevailed back in the early 2000s when the Bush administration labelled North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” and implied that it would be next after Iraq, even while South Korean president Kim Dae-jung was pursuing detente through his Sunshine Policy.

There’s a lot of discussion of whether the sudden move towards warming relations by Kim Jong-un in his New Year’s speech is simply a maneuver aimed at taking the pressure off his government, now that the U.S. has ratcheted up sanctions and is threatening a preemptive strike.

I think this is too simplistic. I’m sure both North and South Korea are thinking strategically. But both Koreas also have a strong mutual interest in improving relations and both want to prevent a U.S. preventive strike. There are other potential benefits for both sides if they return to the largely friendly relations of the ‘Sunshine Decade,’ including economic benefits for the North and security benefits for the South.

Many viewing this from the U.S. position are concerned that North Korea is deliberately trying to drive a diplomatic wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. If such a maneuver by Pyongyang were successful, it could actually be a positive development in northeast Asia, and allow South Korea to pursue a more independent foreign policy, but this seems highly unlikely under the current South Korean president.


If Clinton, rather than Trump, were U.S. President, do you think this would be happening?

Hillary Clinton has always been quite hawkish on North Korea and seems to have been one of the people behind Obama’s continuation of Washington’s failed ‘strategic patience’ policy.

I think it is likely there would have been some sort of confrontation between the U.S. and North Korea under Clinton. Of course, the style of rhetoric coming from the White House would have been very different, but the underlying policy — of hostility and refusal to negotiate — is likely to have been very similar to that of the Trump administration.


Do you think the ‘Olympic thaw’ will have any major effect on relations between the Koreas after the Olympics?

It looks at the moment as though this thaw in North-South relations will continue for some time after the Olympics.

This is supported by the fact that Pyongyang has already invested so much in this process, sending the two most prestigious people it could possibly send, short of the leader himself.

However, there are many scenarios in which North-South relations could come off the rails again. For example, the North may find it hard to tolerate a resumption of South-U.S. joint military drills and may respond with a new missile test, likely bringing a sudden end to the current thaw.

There are numerous other unpredictable events such as defections, incidents in the DMZ, or arrests of foreign citizens in North Korea that could destabilize the current situation.

Beyond such contingencies, there is also the fundamental contradiction that while North Korea wants to guarantee its security through the possession of nuclear weapons, South Korea says it will not accept a nuclear North and wants ‘denuclearization’ of the peninsula.

However, the biggest problem for inter-Korean relations is the U.S. itself and its unrealistic desire to retain its hegemonic position in East Asia.

Recent U.S. leaders, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, have been increasingly focused on containing the rise of China as a global superpower. As a result, the geo-strategic importance of the Korean Peninsula – implicitly recognized by the U.S. in 1945 with its decision to partition Korea – has become even more crucial to America’s strategy for maintaining global supremacy.

The biggest problem for inter-Korean relations is the U.S. itself.

While Trump’s presidential style is certainly different and the actual details of his policy remain unclear, U.S. positioning and aims in East Asia remain unchanged. This poses a fundamental problem for inter-Korean relations.

South Korea is home to around 37,000 U.S. military personnel and some 15 bases, including Camp Humphreys, which will soon be the largest U.S. base outside of the United States itself.

Like Japan, South Korea has effectively been under U.S. military occupation since 1945 – with a brief interlude in 1949-50 – making it difficult to achieve a fully independent position on inter-Korean relations and many other matters (see the Iraq War for example, when president Roh Moo-hyun sent Korean troops despite nationwide protests, including from his own supporters).

Inter-Korean relations will also remain hostage to repeated U.S. provocations to the North, in the form of military exercises, direct threats of military attacks, and various types of covert operations aimed at regime change.

While previous South Korean presidents, such as Roh, have talked of asserting greater independence from the U.S. and even attempting to position themselves as a balancer between China and the U.S., this aspiration has remained little more than rhetoric.

Moon Jae-in will be no exception: He has already made his pro-U.S. position crystal clear. The U.S.-ROK alliance precedes the inter-Korean alliance and the same fundamental impasse will continue to stymie inter-Korean relations.

Having said that, it will be interesting to see just how much progress can be made in inter-Korean relations over the coming months, within these constraints. The bottom line for Koreans – and indeed for the rest of the world – is that any inter-Korean engagement is better than none.


Cover image: The inter-Korean ice hockey team plays their first game against Switzerland. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)


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Owen is a lecturer in Korean Studies at SOAS, University of London. He teaches modern Korean history and his research ​focuses on economic and social ​change​ and comparative North Korean/South Korean histories​.