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Inter-Korean talks and Moon’s peace overtures

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Inter-Korean talks and Moon’s peace overtures

While this is a positive sign for peace in the Peninsula, it would be credulous to expect that Kim Jong-un would give up his nuclear ambitions, elucidates Rajaram Panda

The year 2018 ushered for the Korean Peninsula when the first inter-Korean talks were held on January 9 after a hiatus of two years, at the truce village of Panmunjom. This further led to North Korea’s decision to participate in the Winter Olympics at PyeongChang hosted by South Korea from February 9 to 25. In a further gesture of reconciliation, North and South Korea reached an agreement after three rounds of talks on January 17 for their athletes to march together under one flag at the opening ceremony of the Games. All this happened quickly after Kim Jong-un said in a New Year speech that he was willing to send a delegation to the Games. While this is a welcome move between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un without any outside mediation, this further complicates US President Donald Trump’s strategy for dealing with the nuclear-armed regime.

While this is definitely a positive sign for peace in the Peninsula, it would be credulous to expect that Kim would give up his nuclear ambitions. Though Moon’s peace drive is welcome, his move has angered the conservatives at home. When athletes of the rival Koreas walked together behind a single flag, called the Unification Flag, for the first time since their 1945 division, at the start of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it was a highly emotional event since it came on the wave of reconciliation mood following their leaders’ first-ever summit talks. Eighteen years later, a similar act is going to be played out on February 9 when the Games’ opening ceremony is held. But this decision has certainly not generated as much enthusiastic support as it had in 2000, both at home and abroad, because of North Korea’s relentless surge in nuclear ambitions.

Moon is facing serious criticism at home. Conservatives question why their athletes cannot carry their own national flag during the Games on their own soil. Calling Kim’s move a “disguised peace offensive”, Conservative leader Hong Joon-pyo charged Moon of converting “PyeongChang Olympics” to “Pyongyang Olympics”. Being critical of Kim’s abrupt overture, critics say Kim may be trying to use the Olympics to weaken US-led international pressure and sanctions after conducting the sixth nuclear test and launching a series of missiles in 2017.

While public survey shows that most South Koreans support North’s participation as a gateway to peace in the long-strained relations, another poll released on January 18 suggests that half of South Koreans oppose a joint flag. This shows that the general mood in South Korea this time is different than it was in 2000 Sydney Olympics during the era of détente and this is because of North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile programmes. According to the survey by the private polling survey group RealMeter, 49.4 per cent of 500 people aged over 19 voted against athletes from the two Koreas marching under the flag symbolising a unified Korea or the opening and closing ceremonies of the Games. In 2000, athletes from both the Koreas entered the stadium behind a “unification flag” to the tune of the Korean traditional folk song “Arirang” instead of their individual national anthems. Although both South and North Korean athletes competed separately for medals, the name displayed during the marches was “Korea”. This time, the situation is quite different. Mutual distrusts have deepened.

The International Olympic Committee headquartered in Switzerland approved the agreement reached between the two Koreas on January 17. The next step is both Koreas need to decide their mutual arrangements for the event. The ever-optimistic Moon is upbeat that the occasion will provide the Koreas a chance to improve their frosty relations. If both parties can agree to field their athletes as a single team, it could be a step further to mend relations.

By using this opportunity, President Moon hopes to deepen diplomatic efforts and draw both Kim and Trump into a “dialogue process” and eventually lead to negotiations to discuss the denuclearisation issue. Moon’s intentions might be laudable but seem impracticable as Trump is unlikely to loosen his hardline stance on North Korea. Those who support Trump’s hardline position say that Kim may be exploiting the opportunity by using the Olympics to weaken the US-led international pressure and sanctions and Moon is being too naïve to fall into Kim’s trap. However, Moon hopes that since leaders of many countries shall visit South Korea during the sporting event, he can use this as a platform for diplomacy, including summit talks on key issues, and North Korea. South Korea hopes that leaders from more than 20 countries will arrive. It is unclear at the moment how many summits will actually take place.

Moon is concerned about the growing disapproval of his North Korea policy. He appealed to the Conservative activists and the public to support North Korea’s participation in the Games, saying that it is a rare chance to restart international talks on ending North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Coming at a time when war loomed large, the dialogue is a rare opportunity to work for peace in the Peninsula. He observed “the current condition is so fragile that no one can be optimistic about how long the dialogue will last”. Moon is determined to not let the opportunity go waste as “creating another opportunity for dialogue will not be easy”.

The public criticism further grew over an agreement to form a unified women’s hockey team as some hockey players expressed anger because the arrangement takes away the chance for many South Korean hockey players to play in the event that only comes around every four years. For Moon, this could be a small price that his people may pay as his larger goal is to resume denuclearisation talks. He, therefore, appealed to the political circle and the media to lend their support to his efforts. Moon feels that the South-North Korea talks could lead to talks between the US and North Korea. He also emphasised the need for mutual concessions from both Koreas to keep the hard-won momentum for dialogue.     

Trump is not too happy at this turn of events. The process of détente initiated by Moon threatens to nullify his strategy of pressuring the North, with sanctions and threats of military action, to give up its acquisition of nuclear arsenal. The US is fearful that this gesture of unity between the two Koreas shall provide more time to Kim to make further advance in nuclear ambitions. Trump suspects that the ultimate goal of Kim is to evict the US troops from the Korean Peninsula and to reunify the two Koreas under a single flag. If the US could not deter the Soviet Union peacefully during the heydays of the Cold War, similar looks to be the case with North Korea now. The symbolic value of a “unified flag” being hoisted in the opening and closing ceremonies will be in sharp contrast to the threats of war espoused by Trump.  

Trump could be further perturbed that the two Koreas have agreed to field a joint women’s ice hockey team facing Japan on February 14 at the Games. This will be the first time the two countries would have a combined women’s team at the Olympics since 1991 when they had put together a single team for a table tennis championship in Chiba, Japan, and a youth soccer tournament. The unified table tennis team had won the gold medal defeating China. For Moon, the joint participation of athletes from both countries would be a historic moment and a step towards reconciliation.

Though no noticeable headway on halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons programmes can be expected from Moon’s sports diplomacy, people in South Korea living under tensions and talks of war at least for now can see a welcome reprieve in Moon’s strategy of engaging North Korea. Trump’s talks of “fire and fury” and threats to “totally destroy” North Korea had met with a menacing response from Kim to retaliate mercilessly at the US targets. He had called Trump a “lunatic”. Following Moon’s outreach to Kim, Trump too toned it down by expressing willingness to talk with Kim, while questioning at the same time the value of such a meeting. It is to be seen from here on how a progressive Government in Seoul and a hawkish Government in Washington continue to conduct diplomacy vis-à-vis North Korea.

Another dimension of both Koreas coming together at the Olympics could be the Korean spirit displayed upfront by cheerleaders, spawning nationalism against Japan. All the three countries - both Koreas and Japan - continue to suffer from the shadow of history. While the abduction issue remains unresolved between Japan and North Korea, the Takeshima/Dokdo island and comfort women issues remain constant irritants in Japan-South Korea relations. Therefore, both Koreas coming together may not be good news for Japan.

The US, Japan, and South Korea seem to have the basic understanding that resumption of communications by North Korea could be mere diversions with little impact on its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Yet, Moon believes in pursuing the engagement strategy. While for the US and its allies, getting rid of North Korea’s nuclear weapons remains the ultimate goal of any negotiations, for North Korea and China, possession of weapons by the North is the only credible deterrent against a possible US attack. With such rigid stances by either side, any expectation of real peace returning to the Korean Peninsula stemming from North’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics could be mere will-o’-the-wisp.

The writer is ICCR India Chair Visiting Professor at the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, Reitaku University, Japan. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect either that of the ICCR or the Government of India. E-mail: rajaram.panda@gmail.com




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