The Olympics are here and the stakes are high for South Korea

The Olympics are here and the stakes are high for South Korea
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South Korea branded the Pyeongchang Olympics as the “Peace Olympics” as part of its campaign to win rights to host the games. Just months ago, the phrase seemed empty and hollow as President TrumpDonald John TrumpSasse: Trump shouldn't dignify Putin with Helsinki summit Top LGBT group projects message onto Presidential Palace in Helsinki ahead of Trump-Putin summit Hillary Clinton to Trump ahead of Putin summit: 'Do you know which team you play for?' MORE and Kim Jong Un engaged in a war of words and the United States and North Korea appeared set to careen toward military confrontation.

But Kim Jong Un has launched a momentary charm offensive with his New Year’s offer to join the Olympics and lower tensions on the peninsula for the duration of the games. The immediate challenge for the Moon administration is how to be a good host to the world, navigate fierce domestic political divisions over how to deal with North Korea, and identify an exit ramp for the U.S.-North Korean nuclear confrontation.

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Despite diplomatic breakthroughs limited thus far to North Korean participation in the games themselves, critics fear that following its sprint toward expanded nuclear and missile capability in 2016 and 2017, Kim Jong Un will use the Olympics to burnish his national standing and break out of international sanctions by projecting a normalized and humanized image to the world, using a beautiful cheering squad, precision taekwondo moves, and a talented symphony orchestra in an effort to steal the spotlight during the games themselves.

In a propaganda counteroffensive, the Trump administration has put the spotlight on North Korean survivors of human rights abuses at the State of the Union address and has invited the father of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died as a result of mistreatment during his detention in North Korea, to join Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceIndiana has spent over million on cleanup of failed Pence family gas stations: report What really happened with the breastfeeding scandal in Geneva Pence heckled over Trump immigration policy: 'Where are the children?' MORE at the Olympic opening ceremonies. Despite an Olympic truce, the propaganda battle around the games continues.

To bridge the gap between North Korea and the United States, South Korea’s Moon administration has bent the rules on sanctions by allowing prominent North Koreans to violate sanctions restrictions by visiting Seoul while maintaining rhetorical solidarity with Trump and enforcing sanctions by interdicting North Korean maritime violators of the United Nations sanctions regime.

Such developments have raised criticisms that the United States and South Korea are not on the same page, despite active South Korean consultations on Olympics-related exceptions. More importantly, South Korean and U.S. strategic interests remain bound together around the shared goal of North Korea’s denuclearization.

President Moon’s most challenging task will be to broker a dialogue between North Korean and American high-level officials who will be in the same stadium for the first time for Olympic opening and closing ceremonies. But this will be difficult since North Korea has already publicly announced its disinterest in meeting with the United States at Pyeongchang.

Even so, Moon will have a rare opportunity to convey privately to Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, the inordinate dangers and risks that North Korea will face if it presses forward with its nuclear advancement. This is important because Kim Yo Jong is in a better position than almost anyone else to speak frankly with her brother about the dangers his regime is facing.

The stakes are high. Moon’s failure to bring the United States and North Korea together would mean an increased likelihood that the United States and North Korea will return following Olympic and Paralympic closing ceremonies to the resumption of delayed U.S.-South Korean military exercises and renewed North Korean missile tests.

A return to confrontation will constrain South Korea’s maneuvering room and could revive inter-Korean tensions, or they could magnify differences between Moon and Trump that would inevitably come to the surface in the event of a premature military conflict between the United States and North Korea. If Moon’s diplomatic brokering efforts fail, South Korea’s dreams of peace might be extinguished together with the Olympic flame.

Scott Snyder is a senior fellow in Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of South Korea at the Crossroads: Autonomy and Alliance in an Era of Rival Powers.” Follow him on Twitter @SnyderSas.