In the bleak world of North Korea news, optimism is in short supply. But the ongoing inter-Korean talks regarding the DPRK’s participation in the Olympics are genuinely heartening because they have thrown a monkey wrench into the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign and slowed the march toward war. It remains to be seen whether this Olympic detente will expand into something larger, potentially even talks with the United States, but for the time being, the world can breathe a sigh of relief.
The talks at Panmunjom, the “truce village” at the demilitarized zone, almost instantly resulted in the reopening of a military-to-military hotline between the North and South, and both countries have now agreed to march under a single flag at the opening ceremony of the games. It appears the DPRK will compete in five sports at Pyeongchang and also send an extensive arts delegation, including a 230-person cheer squad, the 140-strong Samjiyon Band, and a taekwondo demonstration team. With negotiations still underway, others may come south as well.
The thaw in relations is largely the result of efforts by South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who successfully petitioned the United States to push back the countries’ annual joint military exercises until after the Olympics. The Key Resolve and Foal Eagle operations, which involve hundreds of thousands of troops and provocative “decapitation raids,” are a source of annual tension on the Korean peninsula. The DPRK has long denounced them as rehearsals for invasion, an assessment that seems far less extreme these days given open talk of military action in Washington.
Trump’s surprise agreement to a delay is evidence that Moon’s delicate diplomatic dance — navigating relationships with the US, Japan, and China to carve out a space of relative autonomy and prevent a catastrophic war — may be working. While Moon played the good alliance partner and gave Trump credit for the talks (apparently after being explicitly asked to do so), it is blatantly obvious to anyone paying attention who is actually responsible for the ease in tensions.
Of course, the Kim regime played a major role in this process too, and much has been written in recent weeks about the alleged nefariousness of the North’s sudden change of heart. To some, Kim’s pivot is about buying time to complete the DPRK’s ICBM technology, which still appears to lack reliable reentry capability despite major advancements in 2017. For the most hawkish, though, the North Korean “peace offensive” is about something far grander: laying the groundwork for the unification of the peninsula under Kim Jong-un’s dictatorial control.
There is little denying that the North has its own strategic interest in attending the Olympics and restarting talks with the South. But fears of outright expansionism are far-fetched. The South Korean public, while generally positive about the DPRK’s participation in the games, harbors skepticism about the details and is hardly a sleeping mass of defeatists, as certain analysts occasionally imply.
What the alarmism really reveals is the United States’ underlying attitude toward the South, which American officials publicly praise as an independent democratic power but privately view as a risk to be managed. Too much independence — “running off the leash,” as a former State Department official put it earlier this month — is regarded as undermining US power in the Asia Pacific region.
In this respect, there is a kernel of truth in US fears about inter-Korean talks. Arranged without American involvement and in implicit opposition to the pressure-only approach, the talks represent pushback from inside (but not against) an alliance system whose obvious power imbalances tend to favor US-dictated policy. Though small, Moon’s victory tested the boundaries of what is politely called a “partnership” with the United States and managed, at least for the moment, to check its more hawkish impulses. Considering US elites’ concern with the country’s declining influence abroad — a concern that comes in both conservative and liberal guises — it is perhaps not surprising that so many US observers are trying to figure out exactly what’s going on in Korea right now.
But for those of us with a more internationalist bent, the abrupt sea change in North-South relations is very encouraging. At the very least, the United States is unlikely to order a strike during the Olympics and Paralympics, so Moon has bought some time for cooler heads to prevail. It remains an open question just how much time, however. The Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises have only been pushed back to April, and without US involvement in the talks, tensions could reappear after the games. The window of opportunity is open — but not for long.
Above all, the North desires an end to the “hostile policy” of the United States — and there are few more egregious displays of US military power on the peninsula than the massive spring exercises. An agreement to suspend these maneuvers in exchange for a freeze on the North’s nuclear weapons program seems like an attainable and eminently sensible near-term goal for talks. The Chinese and Russian governments have floated such a “dual suspension” plan (also called a “freeze for freeze”), but Pentagon officials and some in the Trump administration see it as too concessionary toward the North. (They also likely view it as a strategic gambit by rival powers in the region.) Even the Moon government publicly opposes the plan.
Still, there is room for progress. If this present situation is maintained — a lull in the North’s nuclear and missile tests, and a pause in US–South Korea military exercises — it could serve as a basis for a more expansive agreement. And though the Pentagon may hate to admit it, there is historical precedent for such a deal. In the 1990s, the United States suspended the Team Spirit exercises as part of its early efforts to prevent the North from developing a nuclear bomb.
In fact, the United States did it twice: first to encourage the North Korean government to cooperate with nuclear inspections, and then again as part of the Agreed Framework deal that halted the DPRK’s weapons program. Plus, an actually existing deal might follow the spirit of the Chinese and Russian proposal without including its more comprehensive aspects. The United States and South Korea could agree to scale back the exercises, for instance, instead of entirely canceling them. Modifications to the drills could be supplemented with other elements: relaxation of sanctions (which continue to harm ordinary North Koreans), economic aid, or additional security assurances.
For the North, the latter is particularly important. The Kim dynasty fears regime change — which the United States has a history of inflicting on governments that relinquish their nuclear ambitions — so a sense that both states are inching toward detente will be critical. A peace treaty to formally end the Korean War should absolutely be a part of the ongoing conversation — and those of us in the United States who care about preventing a resumption of hostilities should be pressuring our government to put it on the table.
Unfortunately, much of this depends on the United States’ willingness to engage. While there have been hopeful signs in recent days, the administration remains deeply divided on North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis are skeptical of military action, but National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster is apparently a strong proponent. McMaster’s more hawkish line has been echoed by UN ambassador Nikki Haley and CIA director Mike Pompeo, both of whom have been floated as potential replacements for Tillerson. If Tillerson leaves — or gets the boot — the balance of power could easily shift in the hawks’ favor.
Amid this palace intrigue, the United States is quietly moving military assets — bombers, ships, and fighter jets — into the Pacific region. These moves could be bluffs in support of what is at least honestly called “coercive diplomacy.” But they have a materiality too — and serve to remind us that war lurks as a real possibility.
Fortunately, the inter-Korean talks offer a way out of saber-rattling and military build-ups. The opportunity they present is tenuous but real. Popular support will be essential if this promising beginning is to blossom into substantive, good faith diplomacy — and hopefully, lasting peace.