PyeongChang’s Winter Olympic Games saw the coming together of two sides of one of the world’s most acute hostilities. Almost three months later, as the two Korea’s converge once more for a historic summit at the Demilitarised Zone, it appears that the groundwork has been laid for an ever-elusive inter-Korean reconciliation. Optimism abounds. But the record is clear: we’ve been here before.
At 8pm on February 9th, the small South Korean township of Daegwallyeong lit up. A swarm of 1,200 luminous drones darted about the night sky above PyeongChang’s Winter Olympic stadium, converging delicately in the constellation of a dove, a snowflake and the five Olympic rings. But for many revellers, amongst whom sat an assembly of the world’s figureheads, politicians and diplomats, the most striking spectacle was yet to come.
Two athletes – South Korea’s Won Yun-jong and North Korea’s Hwang Chung-gum, emerged from within the stadium. Clad in puffy, white winter coats, the pair clasped between them an equally pale flag, stamped with a pastel blue impression of the Korean peninsula. Behind, a troop of sportspeople trailed; each veiled from the stinging cold by the same puffy, white winter coats; each fluttering a miniature of the same Korean Unification Flag; each beaming with the same sunny smile that belied months of particularly icy inter-Korean relations.
‘Korea’, appropriately, was the final team to emerge amidst the opening ceremony’s parade of nations, reflecting both Olympic tradition and the significance of the athletic alliance, as the tentative product of the first face-to-face dialogue between the two Korea’s since 2015.
It is difficult to understate the symbolic gravity of PyeongChang’s exhibition. Though this past February’s Games marked the ninth convocation of the athletes of both sides, it was the first time the two Korea’s fielded a joint sports team, and their first ceremonial unification in some eleven years.
Notable amongst the North’s delegation of diplomats, cheerleaders and taekwondo demonstrationists was Kim Yo-jong, director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, and little sister to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Also present was Kim Young-nam, President of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the North’s rubber-stamp parliament. Together, the group constituted an unprecedentedly high-level delegation, fuelling optimism that the games would embody a forum for dialogue between long-estranged stakeholders.
Reality, ultimately, was not too far removed from expectation, as the sister Kim moved to extend an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang. Although the brief appearance of Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump in doppelganger form was as close as the US delegation, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, was prepared to get with their North Korean counterparts, President Trump soon found himself the recipient of a similar summons.
Such developments typify what pundits have optimistically termed ‘sports diplomacy’, that is, the hope that PyeongChang’s winter thaw could embody a catalyst for inter-Korean reconciliation, in a manner akin to the ping-pong diplomacy which preceded the normalisation of Sino-American relations in 1979.
Almost three months later, as images of the South Korean president shaking hands with his North Korean counterpart, directly above a concrete slab demarcating the North-South border, were beamed around the world, PyeongChang’s sports diplomacy appeared utterly vindicated.
Stalemates and Crises
It is here things now stand. Following months of tentative talks and much-hushed diplomacy, the foundations of which were laid at PyeongChang, Mr. Moon took the hand of Mr. Kim, balancing the portly helmsman as he strode over the DMZ and into South Korea, the first such venture of any North Korean leader.
An hour later, the pair emerged from a morning of talks and, in a move that punctuated the incredible pace of change over the past three months, announced their intention to finally formalise an end to the Korean War, in which the two sides have been engaged since 1950.
It would appear that the drones and diplomacy of the 23rd Winter Olympic Games have rendered the obsolescence of fireworks on the Korean peninsula. But, whilst recent progress has been heralded by many as a prelude to peace, the record is incontrovertible: we’ve been here before.
It is an inescapable caveat to the optimism roused by recent progress that the DPRK has long been an ostensible advocate of denuclearisation: a precondition of rapprochement for both South Korea and the United States.
Indeed, the hermit kingdom became a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985: the not-uncontroversial framework which requires non-nuclear states to abstain from the pursuit of such weapons. This, apparent commitment was reaffirmed by the 1992 Joint Declaration on the Denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, under which both Korea’s renounced the pursuit of nuclear technology beyond civilian applications. But nascent progress proved deceptive, and the North’s ostensible rejection of nuclear weapons was complicated.
In the years following, the North exhibited a deep aversion to the verification of its commitment to non-proliferation frameworks. In May 1992, more than six years since joining the NPT, the North relented, declaring seven nuclear development facilities and submitting plutonium samples to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for inspection. Upon analysis, the IAEA reasoned the North’s potential non-compliance with the NPT, and demanded the inspection of two facilities. The North refused, emphatically, and threatened to withdraw entirely from the NPT in response.
The intervention of former President Jimmy Carter forestalled the demise of denuclearisation and retained scope for the 1994 Agreed Framework between the US and North Korea. Under the agreement, the DPRK agreed to cease activity at its Yongbyon nuclear facility and forestall the construction of new reactors, in exchange for 500,000 tons of annual US oil relief and two, proliferation proof light-water reactors.
But, once more, the respite proved brief, and in response to a CIA report citing “clear evidence” of North Korean uranium enrichment, US oil imports were corked, and the North ultimately withdrew from both the NPT and Agreed Framework in January 2003.
The Six Party Talks – the most concerted effort of stakeholders towards denuclearisation, bore equally few fruit. Despite initial progress, marked by the North’s 2005 pledge to return to the NPT and abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes”, dialogue floundered, and was dealt critical blows by the North’s first nuclear test in 2006, its persisting unwillingness to permit IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities, and the final, knock-out strike: a three-stage rocket launch in April 2009.
This Time it’s Different
So, what’s changed?
Undoubtedly, developments since this past February’s Winter Games have punctured a pointed period of confrontation between the major stakeholders: the North, South and United States most acutely. However, when it comes to meaningful, long-term progress, the North’s record is, at best, chequered, and so the seeds of dialogue, denuclearisation and peace should not be conflated with the full-blossom of a North Korean volte-face.
Though the symbolism and optics presented by PyeongChang and April’s inter-Korean summit have been particularly potent, they are also distortive. Ultimately, the North’s recent overtures do not amount to a departure from precedent. Successive Kim’s have long espoused a fancy for denuclearisation, and have, periodically, been willing to engage in dialogue to such ends.
Rather, when it comes to the peninsula question, it is the United States which has most revised the equation.
Indeed, it is notable that Trump is not the first sitting US president to be extended an invitation to Pyongyang. Secretary of State to the Clinton administration Madeleine Albright ventured to the North Korean capital in October 2000, to test the waters for a planned visit by President Clinton. But, ultimately, the meeting was deemed too much of a concession to then-Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il, and so the summit was scrapped.
President Trump, by contrast, has exhibited no such apprehension, and recently took to Twitter to pillory the apprehension of his predecessors.
But the history of North Korean international relations is distinctly cyclical: marked by an almost formulaic pattern of brinkmanship, re-engagement and concession extraction, before a prompt return to the former. The dynamics at play may, then, be less clear cut. Indeed, it would be a struggle for Mr. Kim to find a more plentiful source of propaganda fuel than a face to face meeting with a sitting American President. Amidst the applause and self-congratulation, President Trump would do well to bare history in mind.
More than two months have passed since the closing of South Korea’s Winter Olympic Games. Over the coming weeks, teams of construction workers will once again descend upon the athletes’ village, this time to dismantle PyeongChang’s temporary Olympic stadium. Decidedly more resilient has been the optimism roused by sports diplomacy for a long-elusive Korean reconciliation. Certainly, in the context of April’s summit, such idealism is not unwarranted. Yet, it would be premature to render a final farewell to fireworks on the Korean peninsula. The approaching, assuredly historic US-North Korean parley will work to further distinguish between North Korean PR and a more authentic commitment to peace. In the meantime, history proffers a critical reflection: stakeholders would do well to ensure that their collective vision is not clouded by North Korean optics.