Trump-Kim tensions shadow Olympics

Trump-Kim tensions shadow Olympics

The Winter Olympics have started in South Korea with the shadow of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea looming over them.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has dubbed these games the “Peace Olympics,” but North Korea and the United States made clear in the days leading up the opening ceremony that nothing has changed between the two. And few, if any, expect the Olympics-inspired detente to last after the world’s athletes depart the peninsula.

“These are the ‘Fake Olympics,' ” Harry Kazianis, director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest, said of Moon’s nickname for the games. “The specter of war is hanging over these games.” 

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The New Year began with signs of a lull in the nuclear crisis that’s been brewing on the Korean Peninsula. North and South Korea held their first high-level talks in years to allow for the North’s participation in the Olympics, and the United States agreed to Seoul’s request to pause joint military exercises so as to lower tensions during the event.

But the lull followed unprecedented verbal jousting between President TrumpDonald John TrumpWSJ: Trump ignored advice to confront Putin over indictments Trump hotel charging Sean Spicer ,000 as book party venue Bernie Sanders: Trump 'so tough' on child separations but not on Putin MORE and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with the two sides hurling personal insults at one another and Trump in one memorable moment bragging that the nuclear “button” on his desk was bigger than his rival’s.

South Korea has continued to be outwardly hopeful as the figure skating, curling and skiing gets underway. In the opening ceremony, athletes from North and South Korea marched together under a unification flag, during which Moon and Kim’s sister stood and shook hands. Moon also met with the sister, Kim Yo Jong, over lunch Saturday.

“We certainly hope to utilize this opportunity to the maximum so that the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games can become a venue that leads to dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as the establishment of peace on the Korean Peninsula,” Moon said during a meeting with Vice President Pence this week.

But the tit-for-tat rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang heated back up as the games began. 

“There’s been a temporary truce that has not extended to the propaganda competition between the United States and North Korea,” said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Pence, who’s leading the U.S. delegation to the Olympics, made stops this week in Alaska, Japan and Seoul before arriving at the Olympic stadium in Pyeongchang. At each, he delivered messages meant to counter what he called North Korea’s “charm offensive.”

On Friday, hours before the opening ceremony, Pence met with four North Korea defectors and visited the Cheonan Memorial, which honors the 46 South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 torpedo attack attributed to Pyongyang.

“We thought it was important to make sure that the truth was told,” Pence said at the meeting with the defectors. “As President Trump has said, the cruel dictatorship of North Korea is little more than a prison state. And as these people and their lives have testified, it is a regime that imprisons, tortures and impoverishes its citizens.”

But the pinnacle of Pence’s messaging was at the opening ceremony itself, where his personal guest was the father of American student Otto Warmbier, who died last year after being returned home in a coma after his 17-month detention in North Korea.

Frank Jannuzi, president of the Mansfield Foundation, questioned the necessity of the Trump administration’s countermessaging, but said he didn’t think it would cast a pall over Olympic celebrations.

“I am not worried at all that anyone in South Korea is going to think that the happy, smiling athletes that they see from North Korea at the games is representative of the experience of the North Korean people,” said Jannuzi, also a contributor to North Korean monitor 38 North. “South Koreans are not fools, and neither are the American citizens. The last thing I’m worried about is a North Korean propaganda success.”

Meanwhile, North Korea held a military parade Thursday to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the North Korean army, an annual holiday that this year was moved up to the day before the Olympics.

The parade featured intercontinental ballistic missiles, including what appeared to be the Hwasong-15 that’s said to put the entire United States within range. But the parade was smaller than many expected, in what analysts believe was an effort at not provoking South Korea on the eve of the Olympics.

Still, Kazianis said, North Korea “wanted to make a point” to the United States that it will not give up its weapons programs.

Despite the pregame posturing, Jannuzi predicted a “prevailing mood” of “excitement and peace and competition” throughout the Olympics.

“I really feel like it would be tragic if the United States came to the party and then sulked in the corner” he said. “Our athletes are there to compete, not to be part of a political drama.”

But experts already have their eye on what’s going to happen after the games. The United States has pledged to resume its military exercises after the Paralympics in March, and North Korea is expected to resume its weapons tests in kind.

“Once we get closer to April, there’s probably about a 40 to 50 percent chance of a military escalation whether accidental or deliberate on either side,” Kazianis said.

Snyder likewise predicted the Olympics are only a “temporary respite” from the nuclear crisis.

“It’s an expression of hope, but it’s not clear that hope will be realized,” Snyder said of the “Peace Olympics.” “I don’t begrudge South Korea for trying to realize that, but I think the odds are against them.”