Gains from inter-Korean Olympic diplomacy at risk without U.S. engagement

Gains from inter-Korean Olympic diplomacy at risk without U.S. engagement

The recent Inter-Korean talks offer South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in a valuable chance to improve North-South Korea ties. However, differences between the United States and South Korea on the best approach for Pyongyang may put Seoul in a bind.

The reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula

As it was reported, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address contained an overture toward improved inter-Korean relations with his offer to send a delegation to participate in the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea. In Seoul, the Moon administration enthusiastically accepted the offer, reviving  previously dormant inter-Korean talks.

On January 4, the U.S. and South Korea announced their joint Foal Eagle military exercises scheduled for spring would be delayed until after the Olympics games, a gesture to North Korea that allowed communication lines across the Korean DMZ to reopen. The North and South also considered holding military talks, as well as planning a possible reunion of divided families during next month’s lunar New Year. In addition to sending athletes and top-level delegation to PyeongChang, North Korea agreed to walk together with the South under one flag and discussed the possibility of fielding of a joint women’s ice hockey team.

Moon’s “ground-breaking chance”

Unexpectedly, in his New Year’s speech, Kim chose to adopt a conciliatory tone toward the South and suggested that the two Koreas “should melt the frozen North-South relations, thus adorning this meaningful year as a year to be specially recorded in the history of the nation.” After the tension of 2017 capping off two years of broken communication lines between the two countries, this surprising move could be the momentous first step toward thawing the icy North-South relations.

The fact that North Korea has decided to exclude the United States from talks with Seoul is noteworthy. North Korea, as a nuclear power under Kim Jong-Un, has historically turned its back on Seoul, preferring instead to deal directly with Washington. Moon has struggled since his inauguration to find an opportunity to enact his plans for relations with the North. The inter-Korea talks would be a chance for Moon to place Seoul in a central role in dealings with North Korea, while also bringing Washington back into the fold and deescalating tension.

The delay of the joint U.S.-South Korea military drills removes a huge obstacle. While the United States and South Korea may deem them key to their national defense strategy, the exercises are a consistent source of insecurity for the North. The postponement may only be a temporary concession for the Olympics. However, it demonstrates to North Korea the willingness of Seoul and Washington to be flexible on points of conflict and reduces the chance of miscalculations or provocative behavior from the North during the Olympic Games. The postponing of the drills will buy Moon some time to make some progress with the North and evaluate Kim Jong-un’s true motives.

Challenges in the near future

Although Inter-Korea talks have provided a window of opportunity for South Korea’s president Moon to push North-South relations forward, issues between Washington and Seoul may challenge these efforts.  

Pyongyang has asked Seoul to withdraw consent for the United States to bring bombers and other strategic, or nuclear capable, assets to the peninsula. Although Moon has emphasized his veto over any preemptive American military strikes against North Korea, it is highly unlikely Trump or the U.S. Department of Defense will allow Seoul to call the shots on U.S. strategic deployments. Furthermore, as part of its effort to review the actions of the previous Park administration, the Moon administration has broached the possibility of reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex (closed in early 2016), a move the United States opposes and sees as undermining the anti-Pyongyang sanctions regime. Plus, the Moon administration has recently discredited but still not voided the so-called “comfort women” deal signed in 2015 under Park. This adds a new layer to Seoul-Tokyo frictions, further complicating trilateral military ties between the United States, Japan, and South Korea, which Washington sees as key to constraining Pyongyang.

To extend the temporary Olympics thaw into a long-term opportunity, the U.S. and South Korea have to work together. However, it seems likely that Seoul and Washington will remain divided on the path ahead. While South Korean President Moon Jae-in has long been disposed toward engagement with the North, the Trump administration may not be willing to compromise on its policy of “maximum pressure.”

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Qi Lin

Qi is a Washington, D.C.-based analyst. She specializes in East Asian security and Chinese foreign policy. She is a Chinese native speaker and proficient in English. She holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of North Carolina and a Master’s in International Affairs from the George Washington University.