Will the Olympics Calm Nuclear Tensions?
Having rattled the world with his aggressive nuclear weapons tests and bellicose rhetoric, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un is extending an olive branch of sorts by agreeing to send a few athletes, 230 cheerleaders, a 140-member orchestra, and other delegates to the Winter Olympics, which start February 9 in South Korea.
North and South Korea also agreed this week to field a joint women’s ice hockey team, which will be the Koreas’ first unified Olympic team ever. And the athletes of the two nations will march together under a “unified Korea” flag at the opening ceremony.
For South Korea, which had repeatedly urged its northern neighbor to join the games, the North’s agreement to participate is a welcome thaw in a chilly relationship. Officials in the South hope that restored dialogue will open the door to negotiations to end the North’s nuclear weapons programs.
Still, North Korea has shown no interest in nuclear negotiations, and the bilateral talks could strain South Korea’s relationship with the United States. President Donald Trump dismissed the South’s previous overtures to the North as “appeasement,” but he agreed this month to suspend U.S.-South Korea military exercises during the Winter Olympics, as an apparent show of goodwill.
To understand the impact of this sports diplomacy, we spoke with Sung-Yoon Lee, F94, F98, the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at the Fletcher School.
Tufts Now: North Korea is a poor, isolated nation that wasn’t officially planning to participate in these games until very recently. Does it even have competitive Olympic athletes?
Sung-Yoon Lee: No. Only two North Korean athletes have qualified to enter the Olympic Games: a figure skating pair. But because we all bend over backwards for North Korea, the International Olympic Committee has already said that it will make “wild card” exceptions and allow North Korean athletes to participate.
Why the focus on cheerleaders?
North Korea is the best in the world when it comes to putting on huge pageantry. When we’re talking about North Korean cheerleaders, we’re not talking about a dozen or twenty as at an American football game. We’re talking about two or three hundred, all dancing and clapping and making gestures in sync. When they cheer on the South Korean team—and I bet they will also cheer on Americans when the U.S. plays against a neutral third country—imagine the excitement and emotional gratitude that will be felt around the world. This is all theater. It melts your biases against North Korea and does wonders for Kim. He comes across as the party that seeks peace, while Trump comes across as the aggressor.
You’ve called Kim Jong-Un’s offer to send a delegation to the Olympics his “latest fake peace gesture.” Why don’t you see it as a sign of diplomatic progress?
This is all according to Kim Jong-Un’s plan. After having caused a lot of problems last year with missile tests, now the timing is perfect for Kim to come across as the peacemaker and paint Trump as the troublemaker. We have seen this story play out in the past several times. In 2002, when the Asian Games were hosted by South Korea, North Korea sent two hundred cheerleaders, who mesmerized the South Korean people. They sent cheerleaders again in 2003 and 2005. In those days, South Korea gave North Korea each year almost a billion dollars in aid, no questions asked, including cash, food, and fertilizer. Whenever the atmospherics grow warm, South Korea is all the more eager to engage North Korea and to subsidize North Korea. That has had absolutely no effect on the Kim regime’s nuclear weapons program. In fact, all that money given unconditionally most likely went to the development of weapons of mass destruction.
Yet South Korea’s president continues to champion dialogue and reconciliation with the North. In their desire to de-escalate tensions with their neighbor, are South Koreans jeopardizing their alliance with the U.S. and perhaps jeopardizing their own future?
They are, but it’s good politics for the foreseeable future to reach out to North Korea, to initiate more inter-Korean projects, which always entail money flow from the South to the North. It calms the public. It is a popular political move.
Most nations of the world are indifferent to North Korea’s growing nuclear threat. So, whenever there is this kind of dramatic thaw in the region, everyone applauds. That means, for now, the U.S. can only sit and wait and watch. The U.S. certainly doesn’t want to come across as the Grinch, the body that’s intent on spoiling this mood of reconciliation. The South Korean government will feel empowered to continue to take a soft line with North Korea, even with the next big provocation.
Is another provocation coming?
I am certain, though I don’t know when. The most recent intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test in late November removed all doubt that North Korean missiles could reach every corner of the U.S. mainland. Now they have to show that they can put a nuclear warhead on an ICBM.
The next time Kim Jong-Un conducts a nuclear test, South Korea will insist, “Look, we have an opening here. Let’s continue to engage North Korea so they can come out of their paranoia.” That message, although faulty and invalid in my view, will resonate powerfully. Trump will be hamstrung. He won’t be able to respond beyond rhetorical condemnation.
The good mood created by the Olympic Games will still be in place. Kim Jong-Un, just by sending a few athletes and hundreds of cheerleaders and performers and dancers and musicians to the South, has basically bought himself a free pass for the next huge provocation. It’s all very crafty. It’s a no-cost, high-payoff gambit by North Korea.
Heather Stephenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.