North Korea won political gold, but what’s next?
Pyeongchang, South Korea – North Korea won the political gold medal at Pyeongchang just by showing up. But what’s next?
Kim Jong Un scored some badly needed publicity points by sending his little sister to the games and extending an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to come to Pyongyang in the near future. And while his athletes are at best an asterisk at the games, the 229-member strong, all-female and unabashedly campy cheering squad is the hottest clickbait around.
But actually parlaying photo ops and handshakes into a summit – or a lasting, positive change in the regional security situation – is quite another matter.
The issues that divide the Koreas are all too real. Kim Jong Un, for all of his newfound interest in cozying up with Seoul, is clinging to his totalitarian leadership style, nuclear weapons and long-range missiles as tightly as ever.
With the North’s high-powered political delegation to the games now back in Pyongyang, and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence safely back in Washington, here’s a look at how the narrative has shifted and what some of Kim’s next moves might be.
Working the wedge
North Korea’s big fear isn’t South Korea. It’s the United States.
By wooing liberals in Seoul, Kim Jong Un is trying to make Washington the odd man out.
The logic is simple: the more direct dealings North and South have, the harder it is for Washington to call the shots. If the North can create a mood of detente, or even of cautious engagement, U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” gets harder to enforce.
Kim’s strategy has already started to pay off. A number of sanctions had to be waived just to allow the North’s delegation to come. More importantly, Kim got Moon to push Trump to postpone annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises he sees as a dress rehearsal for invasion. They are now set to be held after the Olympics and Paralympics are over. Sensing the door is ajar, the North is now pushing for them to be abolished altogether.
The summit offer was Kim’s most obvious wedge move.
Moon wisely gave a cautious, non-committal response to Kim’s invitation. He’s a smart, savvy politician. He’s dealt with Pyongyang before – well before Kim Jong Un was in charge – and he knows how easily deals can fall through and progress revert to rancor.
But Moon has a legacy to think about. And like any national leader, he probably prefers to call his own shots. He might even have a sincere desire to actually fix problems. Washington, meanwhile, hasn’t been his best friend of late, criticizing their trade deals and not even making the effort to name a new ambassador.
So Moon has good reason to at least consider a trip to Pyongyang. If it doesn’t work out, there’s a million ways to spin.
And as the two Koreas try to work out the details, where would Trump be?
As far out of the picture as Kim can keep him.
Shifting the narrative
What about Pence?
He came to Pyeongchang with a clear and relentless message: the North Korean regime is a real and immediate threat to the United States, the region and to its own people. He even came with proof – Fred Warmbier, whose son, Otto, died just days after being released from custody in North Korea. Otto, a college student, was doing a 15-year sentence with hard labor for trying to steal a propaganda banner from the hotel where he was staying as a tourist.
There is a lot of support in Seoul and Tokyo for the U.S. position.
But when athletes from both Koreas marched into the Olympic stadium behind a “unification” flag at the Games’ opening ceremony and almost everyone in Moon’s VIP box rose to their feet for an emotional ovation, Pence remained seated, stone-faced. To share his joy, Moon instinctively turned to the dignitary behind him – Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong.
That was the image that went viral.
Pence was totally on message, sometimes to his own detriment, and he got hammered for it. Many Koreans saw it as a churlish insult. The Kim-Moon handshake effectively replaced Pence’s narrative with a much more engagement-oriented one. Even Pence seems to be changing his tune – he is reportedly now talking about talks with Pyongyang.
“Smart. Super smart,” said Vipin Narang, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in nuclear nonproliferation strategy. “Taking advantage of the opportunity, smelling wedge in the water, and sending Kim Yo Jong as a personal emissary. … Whereas we can’t even nominate an ambassador, to convey the seriousness with which Kim Jong Un views this opportunity he sends his own blood.
“If you are President Moon, which state is according you higher priority?”
Why it might be working
Without a lot of reassurances, Trump’s “America First” policy isn’t a comforting concept for South Koreans.
For the U.S.-South Korea alliance to really work, Seoul needs to confidently believe two things: that it can count on the U.S. to defend it in a war that can’t be avoided, and that it won’t start a war on the peninsula that Seoul doesn’t want or doesn’t have a significant say in.
Trump’s fire-and-fury style of dealing with Pyongyang gives some South Koreans pause to question whether he is taking the tremendous risks to their lives and livelihood into account should hostilities flare up. Comments by senior Republicans suggesting that lives “over there” are less important than lives in the United States don’t help.
A classic example of how to split an alliance like the one between Seoul and Washington – “decoupling,” as it is called – comes from the Cold War.
When the Soviet Union acquired the ability to strike the United States with intercontinental ballistic missiles, France no longer felt it could fully rely on Washington for its own defense. So it broke away and developed a nuclear arsenal of its own.
Seoul is asking a similar question thanks to Kim’s ICBMs: Would the U.S. come to Seoul’s defense if doing so raised the risk of North Korea launching a retaliatory strike on San Francisco, for example, or Chicago?
If the answer to that isn’t an absolutely clear “yes,” then South Korea, like Cold War France, needs to explore its other defensive options.
That’s exactly where Kim Jong Un wants the “Olympic truce” to lead.
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