Asia: South Korea
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Asia: North Korea
Americas: United States
Special Diplomatic Report: North and South Korea march in Opening Ceremony of 2018 Winter Olympics under one flag; North Korea invites South Korean president to Pyongyang for talks; United States insists Seoul in lockstep with Washington D.C.
After two years of war-provoking rhetoric on the Korean peninsula, sustained missile launches by the North and a continuing nuclear development program, and a dearth of inter-Korean engagement, some progress was made between the two Koreas at the start of 2018.
On Jan. 3, 2018, when they agreed to reconnect the hotline between the two countries that was shut down in early 2016. Around the same period, South Korea suspended cooperation with North Korea at a joint economic project at the Kaesong Industrial complex after a rocket launch by the North. Since then, tensions on the Korean peninsula have only increased due to North Korea's nuclear and missile launch activity in the following year (2017). As such, the news of the reconnected hotline between the two Koreas was regarded as a positive sign.
In another move towards much-desired peace-building, it was announced that delegations from North Korea and South Korea would meet for high-level talks at the Peace House in the border village of Panmunjom. It should be noted that Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) is regarded as a "truce village." Divided into two parts by a military demarcation line, one side of Panmunjom is North Korean territory while the other side is under South Korean jurisdiction.
On the agenda would be North Korean participation in the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, which were set to take place in South Korea in February 2018. These negotiations were being viewed as a foundation for further talks and a means to improve inter-Korean relations.
Cho Myoung-gyon, South Korea's unification minister explained: "When discussing inter-Korean relations, the government will seek to raise the issue of war-torn families and ways to ease military tensions." While rapprochement was still a destination in the distance, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was elected partially for his championing of negotiations with the North, said that the Winter Olympics in his country would serve as a "groundbreaking chance" to improve relations with North Korea.
On Jan. 9, 2018, following high-level bilateral negotiations, an agreement was reached to facilitate North Korea's participation at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. The development marked a significant breakthrough and a victory for vigorous diplomacy between the two countries, which met for their first high-level negotiations in more than two years.
In a further development, the two Koreas agreed to hold military talks, with an eye on decreasing border tensions. Military talks, though, would not include the subject of denuclearization. In the long term, it was unknown if this engagement track -- with denuclearization off the table -- would be sustainable. In the short term, these moves were collectively being regarded as trust-building exercises, with the broad goal of ameliorating ties between the North and South at stake.
Note that by mid-January 2018, although South Korea invited North Korea to engage in wide and broad-ranging talks in anticipation of the Olympics, the North curtailed the discussion to the matter of sending an art troupe to South.
But in February 2018, as the 2018 Olympics opened in Pyeongchang, South Korea, diplomatic progress had been made. Indeed, North Korean athletes in downhill skiing, figure skating, and hockey were set to compete at the 2018 Olympics in South Korea. Even more remarkable was the fact that North Koreans marched under one flag with South Koreans during the opening ceremony.
With that foundation set, further progress on the diplomatic scene between the two Koreas came when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang for talks. The invitation was delivered by Kim Jong Un's sister, Kim Yo Jong, who was leading the North Korean Olympic delegation in South Korea.
The invitation would nonetheless place South Korean President Moon Jae-in in a difficult position, as he would have to do a careful balancing act of encouraging dialogue with North Korea, while at the same time, maintaining the United States' “maximum pressure” approach to the North. In truth, Moon Jae-in was elected to power partially on his promise to engage North Korea diplomatically, with South Koreans cognizant that the only path to stability on the Korean peninsula was that of the diplomatic variety. However, given the capriciousness and uncertainty of the North Korean leader, the South could not afford to alienate its closest ally -- the United States.
With this balancing act in mind, Moon Jae-in reacted cautiously to the offer for talks with Pyongyang by saying that he wanted to “create the environment for that to be able to happen.” He also urged North Korea to “actively pursue” dialogue with the United States. Still, the South Korean president seemed to accept the offer of dialogue in Pyongyang, saying that the two Koreas should "make it happen." As well, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon expressed hope that "the right conditions" could be created for a summit of the two Koreas to be held, and called for support from the international community.
The difficulty of the diplomatic track was emphasized when the leader of the United States Olympic delegation, Vice President Mike Pence, refused to stand and applaud for the entrance of the unified Korean team at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Pence also referred to the North Korean regime of
Kim Jong Un as “the most tyrannical” on earth and did not acknowledge the North Korean delegation, even when they were in close proximity. Before he departed Pyeongchang, Pence said in an interview with the media that he intended “to express American resolve regarding North Korea.” Pence also said that the United States and South Korea remained united in their effort "to work very closely to continue and intensify the maximum-pressure campaign that is underway against the regime in Pyongyang.”
-- Feb. 12, 2018
Denise Youngblood Coleman, PhD.
President and Editor in Chief