Winter Olympics: What should we make of North Korea’s switching tactics?

North Korea sends athletes to South Koreas Winter Olympics Games

Dr Owen Miller is a convenor of MA Korean Studies at SOAS University of London.

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 and it is easy to see why the South Korean president has leapt at this opportunity to lower tensions on the Korean peninsula. By sending Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-jong – two of the most senior figures besides Kim Jong Un himself – North Korea really is making a strong statement about wanting to improve inter-Korean ties. Once Moon Jae-in was elected in the South last May, it offered a real opportunity to re-start North-South rapprochement, which has been frozen for a decade since the election of conservative South Korean president Lee Myung-bak. Hopes then faded due to the ongoing confrontation between Trump and Kim Jong Un. But it seems that the North Koreans have decided the time is right to see if Moon is serious about improving relations.

Is there more to the decision than meets the eye?

There is a history of North Korea switching tactics like this and shifting from raising tensions to suddenly making concessions and wanting to talk. There is also a history of inter-Korean relations and North Korea-US relations being out of sync with one another. A similar situation prevailed back in the early 2000s when the Bush administration was raising tensions with North Korea even while South Korean president Kim Dae-jung was implementing the Sunshine Policy.

I’m sure both North and South Korea are thinking about this strategically. There’s a lot of discussion of whether the sudden move towards detente by Kim Jong Un in his New Year’s speech is simply a manoeuvre aimed at taking the pressure off now that the US has ratcheted up sanctions and is threatening a pre-emptive strike. I think this is too simplistic. Both Koreas have a strong interest in improving relations and both have an interest in preventing a US preventive strike. But there are also many other potential benefits for both sides if they return to the largely friendly relations of the ‘Sunshine Decade’.

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

Hilary Clinton has always been quite hawkish on North Korea and was one of the people behind Obama’s continuation of the ‘strategic patience’ policy. I think it is likely there would have been some sort of confrontation between the US 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 would have been very similar I think and I would not be surprised if the Pentagon under Clinton would also have been asked to plan pre-emptive strikes on North Korea.

Do you think this will have any major effect on relations between the Koreas after the Olympics? And what about between the US and North Korea?

It looks at the moment as though this thaw in North-South relations will continue for some time after the Olympics. Just the fact that the DPRK has already invested so much in this process by sending the two most prestigious people it could possibly send, short of the leader himself. However, there are many scenarios in which this could fall off the rails again. The biggest problem, as ever for inter-Korean relations, is the US. Although Trump’s style might be different, the difficulties are basically the same as they’ve been since the 1950s: solving the Korean peninsula problem while both South Korea and Japan are effectively under US military occupation is likely to be impossible. While there has been talk in the past of South Korea attempting to assert more independence from the US, no South Korean president has really tried this. Moon Jae-in will be no exception: he has already made his fundamentally pro-US position crystal clear. Thus the same fundamental impasse will continue to stymie inter-Korean relations. In addition, it seems likely that Trump will continue with his provocations of North Korea, making inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation hostage to an unstable narcissist in the White House.

There is an outside possibility that thinking might change in Washington over the next few months and the hawks will give way to more realistic thinking on Korea, opening the way for US-North Korea talks. But we’ll have to see.


Owen initially studied East Asian history at SOAS as an undergraduate and subsequently lived in South Korea, where he studied Korean language at Yonsei University. He returned to SOAS in 2001 to study for an MA and then a PhD in Korean history

His research interests include the social and economic history of 19th and 20th century Korea; urban history; Korean nationalist and Marxist historiographies; the economic history of North Korea; and state formation in Northeast Asia.

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