NORTH Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, spent 2017 rattling the world with nuclear and long-range missile tests and has promised more of the same this year. So, it was a surprise when he deftly seized on the Winter Olympics on Tuesday to turn towards diplomacy with Seoul, playing the part of the statesman even while seeking fractures in the seven-decade alliance between South Korea and the United States.
After his outreach to Seoul on New Year’s Day, Jong-un agreed to send a small team to compete in the Olympics next month when the Winter Games open in the South Korean town of Pyeongchang. That was followed by an announcement about resumption of military-to-military talks between the two countries — without the US.
All this is a relief to South Korea’s leader, President Moon Jae-in, who feared the North would find a way — missile launches, terrorism, a nuclear test — to cast a pall over a sports event meant to highlight the South’s emergence as one of the world’s most dynamic economies.
Few in Seoul or Washington believe Jong-un, though an avid sports fan, is motivated solely by the Olympic spirit. The Winter Games also presents him with an ideal opportunity to throw a wrench in President Donald Trump’s threats of military action if the North does not agree to give up its nuclear programme.
Along the way, Jong-un is looking to get some relief from sanctions that are beginning to bite, and to bring China back to its traditional position — that no one should disturb the status quo, even if that means tolerating a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons.
It is a strategy meant to resonate with many South Korean progressives who argue that defusing tensions on the peninsula has to be Seoul’s top priority. And, it pointedly excluded the US, although South Korea insists it will keep the US in the loop.
By leaving bombast out of his speech last week and even appearing before the cameras in a Western-style suit and tie, Jong-un clearly wants to be seen as a statesman.
Trump, who has promised to “totally destroy” the North if it puts the US at risk, has already claimed credit for the new tone. The latest United Nations Security Council sanctions, issued last month, were intended to threaten the North’s energy supplies and its opportunities to earn hard currency, possibly derailing the North’s surprising economic growth.
What Jong-un is not discussing with the South is the future of his nuclear weapons and missile programmes.
Many experts fear that is exactly the point: relief from tightening sanctions or threat of American attack may give his engineers time to perfect a warhead able to hit the continental US.
The evidence of that came on Tuesday when Ri Son Gwon, the chief North Korean delegate to the talks, protested when South Korea called for the resumption of denuclearisation discussions, according to pool reports. And, none are scheduled.
To drive home the point, Son Gwon said, according to the same reports, “Our cutting-edge weapons, including our hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles, are not targeting our Korean brothers, China or Russia, but the US”.
Jong-un has made no secret of his determination to keep his nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. In his New Year’s speech, he described his country’s atomic arsenal as the only thing preventing the US from starting a war on the Korean Peninsula, boasting of the “nuclear button” on his desk. That led to Trump’s retort that he has “a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”.
The mine-is-bigger exchange obscured two more important elements of the speech. Jong-un told his people to brace themselves for the effects of sanctions, which have led to fuel shortages and significantly higher prices. It was a rare admission that Trump’s campaign was getting to Jong-un.
Jong-un also urged the South to break ranks with Washington on the issue of sanctions and begin talks about the Olympics. Jae-in has been worried about a North Korean disruption of the Winter Games, and his staff members told US officials that South Korea wanted to suspend military exercises with the US during the Olympics and find a role for the North, which won seven medals in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Senior US officials said they had no choice but to accede to Jae-in’s appeals. Trump agreed in a Jan 4 phone call with Jae-in to suspend the military exercises, and said at Camp David over the weekend that, “I’d like to see them getting involved in the Olympics and maybe things go from there”.
The games end in late February. In Washington, it is widely believed that no military action would happen until afterward, in the event that diplomatic routes fail.
The Pentagon has drawn up extensive plans, including a punch-in-the-nose strategy against the North that would involve taking out a missile, and a much broader attack on the missile and nuclear sites. But, both defence secretary Jim Mattis and secretary of state Rex W. Tillerson have argued internally that it would be nearly impossible to contain any retaliation, officials have said.
The State Department welcomed Tuesday’s talks at the Demilitarised Zone, but Heather Nauert, the department’s spokesman, said South Korean officials “will ensure North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics does not violate the sanctions”. NYT