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Global Pulse: The Winter Olympics have begun in South Korea

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The Winter Olympics have officially kicked off in PyeongChang, South Korea. The widely-anticipated sports event is another installment of sports diplomacy for the Korean peninsula, as both North and South Korea will be appearing as one contingent and competing as a team.

Strains between the US and South Kprea

While South Korean president Moon Jae-in was previously lauded for his handling of talks with North Korea, there now seems to be a strain in the country’s relationship with the US. “One day ahead of the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies, the two governments are sending out contradictory messages about whether the Games are the beginning or the end of engagement with Pyongyang,” writes Josh Rogin in the Washington Post.

Moon Jae-in met with American Vice President Mike Pence, who is currently in South Korea. He put out a statement in which he affirmed to “utilize this opportunity to the maximum”, so that the Olympics could lead to a “dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as well as to establishing peace on the Korean peninsula.” Pence, speaking after Moon, said nothing about this dialogue, and instead said that the US hoped to continue the campaign of “maximum pressure” on Kim Jong Un.

“Earlier Thursday, at Yokota Air Base in Japan, I asked Pence directly how he planned to deal with Moon’s public desire to build off of the North-South Olympic engagement. Pence said the Trump administration wants the warming of relations with North Korea to end when the Olympic flame is extinguished,” writes Rogin.

“Pence risks becoming isolated and appearing too reluctant to take advantage of an opportunity to pursue peace. That’s where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe comes in. A trilateral meeting between Pence, Moon and Abe is in the works but not yet set. Pence and Abe want to present a united front to Moon, arguing for a tougher line.

But what Pence and Abe may fail to realize is that Moon’s twin desires to have a successful Olympics and explore an opening with the Kim regime may trump his commitment to reaffirm the strength and unity of the alliance. Pence may also underestimate the damage that Trump’s treatment of South Korea since the campaign has done to Moon’s willingness to follow Washington’s lead,” he writes.

“The previously private break between the Trump and Moon administrations is being thrust out into the open. Unless that is addressed, the damage to U.S.-South Korean relations could ultimately be what survives after the Olympics end.”

Diplomacy breakthroughs don’t mean that nuclear war is off the table

“In the longer term, Kim appears to hope that he can convince the international community that it can co-exist with a nuclear North Korea, much as Pakistan did,” writes Yoon Young-Kwan in the Project Syndicate. But Moon Jae-in is unlikely to be fooled, and is now treating the Olympics as an opportunity to not only defuse tensions, but actively pursue a dialogue on denuclearisation.

“While the possibility that South Koreans may be drawn into North Korea’s honey trap cannot be ruled out, most Koreans, including young people, have had their fill of the North’s provocations, and are highly unlikely to be seduced by Kim’s charm offensive. Moon himself made it clear last month that no improvement in the South’s relationship with North Korea will be possible without denuclearization. Indeed, his efforts to open a dialogue with the North seem to be driven by cool diplomatic realism, not naïve idealism.”

“More dangerous, some US policymakers continue to entertain the possibility of delivering a “bloody nose” strike to the North – a decision that could cost hundreds of thousands of lives. After all, there is no guarantee that North Korea would be able to discern whether it really is a one-time strike, or a declaration of war. And even if the North could read the Trump administration’s intentions, there is no telling how it would respond,” writes Young-Kwan.

“But, ultimately, it is Trump who needs to seize the opportunity to initiate talks. The fact is that, despite their importance, sanctions alone cannot bring about the outcome desired by the US or its allies. Talks are needed, if only to try to find out the North’s true intentions: is its nuclear program a defensive or offensive project? For that, the Trump administration will need to move beyond the “maximum pressure” promised by its stated North Korea policy, and get started on the “engagement” that it also acknowledges will be indispensable to forging a solution.”

Collision Course

The United States of America and North Korea are headed toward a heightened nuclear standoff unless they change their present course, writes Jongsoo Lee in the Korea Herald. “Both must adjust their behavior if they are to avoid a war,” he writes.

“Washington and Pyongyang need to realize that sometimes a war starts not because nations want one but because war is the only default option when all other options are not actively pursued. At the present, both nations have been acting in ways that foreclose a peaceful resolution and make resorting to war the default choice. A way out is for both to find face-saving ways to explore common ground by turning away from their confrontational hardline policies, statements and actions.”

“The United States, therefore, would be wise to make use of the political cover provided by the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics to establish a direct dialogue with North Korea. Instead of shunning the North Korean delegates at the Games, the US delegation should meet with them. Kim Yong-nam, the likely chief North Korean delegate at the Games, is a senior official with much experience in the international diplomatic arena, whose alleged professionalism is suited for meetings with the officials from the US and other nations to be represented at the Games. Washington has little to lose but potentially something significant to gain by meeting Kim and exploring Pyongyang’s intentions. Even if the meetings lead to no breakthrough for the nuclear standoff, at a minimum, a communication channel will be established, which will be invaluable in defusing future spikes in tension,” he writes.

“Pyongyang also needs to seize this diplomatic opening for Olympic peace in order to avert a catastrophic war, and the global community would do well to lend its support to this Olympic diplomacy. If this opening is wasted, spring will probably bring on heightening tensions as US-South Korean joint military exercises resume and North Korea conducts more nuclear or missile tests. Attempts to engage in diplomacy then may be too late.”

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