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Global Pulse: North Korea to send a high-level delegation to Winter Olympics

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All eyes are on the Korean peninsula as both countries began the new year with a pledge to open up talks again, for the first time in two years. North Korea has just announced that it will be sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month— but this new direct communication could have repercussions on the tense nuclear stand-off situation. And this time, the United States hasn’t even been invited to the table.

An inauspicious start

South Korea runs the risk of being taken on a ride, according to Nicholas Eberstadt writing for the New York Times. He writes that the sudden desire to open dialogue might no doubt be inspired by the desire to participate in the Winter Olympics, but the hastiness might be also to catch South Korea unawares. Describing it as “we say jump, you ask how high” diplomacy and a “we win and you lose” deal, Eberstadt predicts that South Korea will have to play its cards better.

“As far as strategy goes, it is absolutely critical for Seoul — but also for the international community — to understand what may be the calculations underlying Mr. Kim’s move. In particular: Why did he propose talks with only South Korea? And why now?

The simplest interpretation may be that Pyongyang regards South Korea as the weakest link in the gathering global campaign to pressure North Korea to denuclearize,” he writes.

Detailing a history of attempts at reconciliation with the North, Eberstadt warns Moon Jae-in, “South Korea’s new and immensely popular president” against biting the bullet too soon.

“So how can the Moon administration avoid getting played? First, by recognizing the North’s ulterior goals in these talks, and the other traps it may be readying. Then, by insisting ruthlessly on a quid pro quo at every step — requiring, for example, that if Seoul postpones military exercises, then Pyongyang should too. And finally, by tucking a few tricks up its own sleeves.

Mr. Kim says he wants more contact between the North and the South? Insist on it, including by requiring that news from South Korea be allowed to reach the North. Don’t shy away from raising unpleasant topics, like North Korea’s appalling human rights situation, and calling for it to cooperate with the existing United Nations commission of inquiry. And why not confidentially mention that a large majority of South Koreans now seem to favor hosting United States tactical nuclear weapons to counter the North’s new threats?

Time tells the truth

Professor John Kelly (of this viral video fame) writes in the TRT World that historically, these talks have never amounted to much. And judging by North Korea’s past, it would be wise not to have great expectations from the current dialogues.

“One trait all the the Kims have in common is a wholly instrumental attitude toward talks with outsiders. When it is has suited North Korea’s interest to violate agreements, it has. Indeed, this is why the US scarcely engages North Korea anymore.”

“On the other hand, the timing and content of the North Korean proposal strongly suggest it is a bad faith maneuver.

Every New Year’s annual address from the Northern leader suggests better relations with South Korea. A short time later though, the North will test a nuclear weapon or missile, and the goodwill evaporates,” he points out.

Simply rewarding North Korea for being willing to talk is not enough, Kelly writes. He admits that the US and South Korea have learned from this.

“Given that North Korea almost certainly does not want to bargain on these major issues – it clearly wants to keep its nukes, and it does not want to liberalise – I predict the new talks will eventually fall apart with no substantive breakthrough, regardless of whether the North comes to the Olympics or not.”

Turning a corner with sports diplomacy

The timing of these talks are important, argues Frank Ching in the Korean Times. He points out that using the Olympics as a focal point makes everything else fade away, but only temporarily.

“The United States has agreed to the postponement of scheduled joint military exercises with South Korea until after the Games. North Korea, without saying so, will evidently not be testing any bombs or missiles during this period.”

He writes that “China is pleased that, in effect, its call for a suspension of U.S.-South Korea military exercises in return for a suspension of North Korean tests is being put into effect, at least for the time being.”

“Despite Kim’s bellicose words, his New Year address did create the circumstances necessary for talks on the Olympics.

Much depends on the role that North Korea wants to play. It can simply join as a participant, but Pyongyang is likely to demand a bigger role, possibly asking to co-host the Games alongside South Korea and perhaps even ask that some of the events be held in North Korea.”

“But if North Korea overreaches, for example, by asking for political symbols that in effect proclaim it as a nuclear power, then the South may have no choice but to say no,” he writes.

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