The Pyeongchang Olympic Games provided a pause in inter-Korean tensions, enabled by Kim Jong-un’s olive branch offering North Korea’s participation in the games and a charm offensive designed to exploit the emotional symbolism of Korean unity. Yet, while still basking in the glow of the winter games, South Korean diplomacy faces a cloudy path. Officials in Seoul are well aware they have bought only a temporary reprieve from global tensions surrounding North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has resurrected inter-Korean dialogue, secured the promise of inter-Korean military talks, and opened high-level diplomatic channels for direct contact with Kim Jong-un. Additionally, Moon has advocated for a diplomatic dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang, despite their seemingly irreconcilable differences on North Korea’s denuclearization. By the close of the Olympics, Moon also secured a mutual acknowledgement from Pyongyang and Washington of a need for dialogue, but his efforts have not yet elicited an agreement on what the two would talk about.
Such efforts to avert military conflict between Washington and Pyongyang require Seoul to perform a tightwire act that pits fidelity to the United States, as South Korea’s military ally, against the prospects of reduced tension with a fickle partner in the North. In Moon’s first attempt to open a communication channel, he faced obstacles from Pyongyang, which has publicly run from talks with Washington. Moon also met resistance from Washington, which sought to win a propaganda competition during the Olympics to blunt North Korea’s charm offensive and bolstered sanctions pressure against the North. This approach all but ignored South Korea’s bid to provide a diplomatic exit ramp from nuclear crisis. Compounding the challenge, the position of the U.S. ambassador to South Korea remains open at a moment when the need for effective U.S.-South Korea diplomatic coordination could not be higher. In addition, U.S. Ambassador Joseph Yun, the senior point of contact on diplomacy toward North Korea, has announced his retirement.
Seoul’s first efforts to establish dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang began around the Olympic opening ceremony, during which Moon hosted International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and a North Korean delegation that included ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam and Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jung. Moon reportedly secured a willingness by Pence to meet privately with the North’s delegation at the Blue House, home to South Korea’s executive office, but the North publicly spurned the prospect of a U.S.-North Korea dialogue and privately pulled out of a meeting scheduled for the day after the opening ceremony.
South Korea’s failure to broker a high-level U.S.-North Korea meeting occurred amid a growing disconnect between Washington and Seoul over how to approach Pyongyang that formed in the run-up to the games. To host North Korean athletes, high-level officials, a cheerleading squad, an orchestra, and a taekwondo exhibition group, South Korea had to request exceptions to sanctions under the U.S.-led international pressure campaign against North Korea, including ones against receiving vessels involved in the transport of North Koreans and providing fuel to such vessels, and the travel ban on high-level North Korean officials.
The United States acquiesced, but backlash came in the form of a unilateral effort to counter North Korea’s perceived charm offensive with a pre-Olympics propaganda campaign highlighting North Korea’s human rights abuses. Reportedly without giving South Korea a heads-up, President Donald J. Trump in his State of the Union address honored North Korean refugees and human rights activists, and he acknowledged the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died from wounds suffered while in North Korean custody.
Pence brought Warmbier’s father, Fred, with him to the Olympics and to meetings with North Korean human rights activists in South Korea at a memorial site for the March 2010 deadly sinking of a South Korean warship by the North. Pence’s failure to greet the North Korean delegation and his refusal to stand during the entry of the Korean unified team at the opening ceremony struck the South Korean public as an undiplomatic mood-spoiler and was perceived as detracting from the South’s effort to promote a peaceful games. The South Korean public welcomed North Korean participation in the games but maintained healthy skepticism about North Korean intentions.
A Surprise Invitation
Under the aegis of the Olympics, the biggest diplomatic development came in the form of an invitation to Moon from Kim Jong-un to visit Pyongyang, delivered by Kim’s sister. Moon responded that both sides should create the circumstances necessary to “make it happen.” The prospect of a summit in Pyongyang distinguishes Moon as the most likely (and at present only) external counterpart for Kim, yet this role places additional pressure on Moon to serve as an effective conduit and broker for a denuclearization dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang. Without an accompanying understanding between the United States and North Korea on denuclearization, there is little likelihood Moon can achieve a third inter-Korean summit and what would be the first hosted by Kim Jong-un.
Kim’s invitation to Moon led the South to redouble its efforts to connect high-level delegations from North Korea and the United States on the sidelines of the Olympic closing ceremony. The North Korean delegation, led by Kim Yong-chul, the controversial vice chairman of the Worker’s Party Central Committee (rumored to have ordered the 2010 attack on the South Korean warship), provided Moon with the opportunity to extract a North Korean expression of willingness for dialogue with the United States only hours prior to the closing ceremony. A day later, Trump reciprocated willingness to talk with North Korea but “only under the right conditions.”
The closing ceremony provided an opportunity for behind-the-scenes contact between the United States and North Korea. The North’s delegation included a foreign ministry specialist on American affairs, Choe Kang-il, who would have been a match in a diplomatic exchange with the National Security Council’s Korea director, Allison Hooker, a member of the U.S. delegation led by Ivanka Trump. But it is not yet clear whether such contact was made, and if so, whether it has generated a basis for further talks.
Implications and Next Steps
The Moon administration faces additional diplomatic heavy lifting to avoid a return toward confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang. However, South Korea’s experience of brokering North Korean participation in the Olympics makes Seoul a plausible intermediary between Washington and Pyongyang. This provides a potential opportunity for South Korea to transform the symbolism surrounding North Korea’s Olympic participation into tangible gains, but only if South Korea can secure cooperation from both North Korea and the United States. It is a position that will test both South Korea’s fidelity to the U.S.-led international pressure strategy and Kim’s motives in reaching out to its southern neighbor. Moreover, the intermediary role opens a limited window for Seoul to advocate for its fundamental interest in the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Seoul’s immediate objective is to buy time and create the conditions necessary to bring Washington and Pyongyang together. Without a U.S.-North Korea communication channel, there is no pathway to peaceful denuclearization. South Korea needs dialogue to forestall military confrontation and it needs denuclearization to remove the existential security threat posed by the North. And without peaceful denuclearization, there is no prospect for meaningful inter-Korean reconciliation.
Simply put, if Moon wants to go to Pyongyang, he will have to ensure cooperation from Kim and Trump to contain, and eventually reverse, North Korea’s nuclear development through direct talks with the United States. Previous inter-Korean summits have only been possible in the context of an understanding that North Korea’s nuclear program was under control. Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung traveled to Pyongyang in June 2000 because the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework was in place. Another South Korean leader, Roh Moo-hyun, met with the North’s Kim Jong-il in October 2007 only a day after North Korea agreed to implement actions toward denuclearization under the Six Party Framework. Without a similar formal understanding, it will be politically impossible for Moon to accept Kim’s summit invitation.
An upcoming test for South Korea will be how it handles pending bilateral military exercises with the United States. North Korea is expected to press for further postponement or cancellation of the exercises, an annual event that helps reinforce U.S.-South Korea solidarity and bolster deterrence against North Korean aggression. But any South Korean efforts to further delay military exercises would put it at odds with the United States. This would be a challenge to the international pressure campaign to which South Korea has committed itself and would send the wrong signal to North Korea about what it can expect from efforts to improve relations with the South while holding the United States at arms length.
A more likely possibility is that South Korea will use the continuation of inter-Korean negotiations as a means to bridge the diplomatic fissure between the United States and North Korea. South Korea may try to expand inter-Korean negotiations to explore cooperation with the North (within limits) and to push it toward dialogue with the United States. Ongoing inter-Korean dialogue at the ministerial level and the dispatch of a South Korean special envoy to North Korea could open channels for further communication with Kim Jong-un directly about prospects for dialogue with the United States.
South Korea’s Olympics opened a rare window of opportunity to change the trajectory of rising tensions. The efforts made thus far have not yet forestalled a return of such tensions and time is running out. For South Korea, success means drawing Kim out on denuclearization while maintaining solidarity with the United States to avert a conflict that, if not stopped, would have catastrophic consequences.