Let's get real about Pyongyang's latest gambit

Let's get real about Pyongyang's latest gambit
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Many in South Korea have expressed excitement over the sudden proposition by North Korea of holding talks about participating in the upcoming Winter Olympics and deescalating military tensions. 

North-South discussions held in Panmunjom over the past week have produced an agreement for the North and South to march together in the Games’ opening ceremonies. Other arrangements made thus far include the North sending a 400-member delegation consisting of cheerleaders, a taekwondo team, performing artists, media as well as an orchestra, while an announcement was made that the two Koreas will field a joint women’s hockey team. 

The talks also touched on creating opportunities to reunite families, with Seoul’s unification minister expressing expectations that the Olympics would turn out to be “a peace festival with special guests from the North.”

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Seoul has made it a national priority to oversee a safe, successful Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. In this light, many South Koreans viewed positively North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s recent expressed desire for North Korea to participate in the Olympics.

 

The North’s participation, many assert, would lower the chances of Pyongyang instigating a crisis during the Games while also showing the world that cooperation and future unity between North and South is possible.

The optimism among South Korean citizens who wish for an improvement of relations is understandable, although this good vibe must not cloud the judgment of South Korean President Moon Jae-in and those in his administration. A dose of stone cold reality is in order. 

While a positive outcome to North-South talks is hoped for, Seoul’s negotiators must be on guard against North Korea’s tendency of putting on charm offenses that attempt to assure Seoul of peaceful intentions all while seeking to coax aid, sanctions relief and security concessions. Much to the detriment of South Korea, the U.S. and Japan, North Korea has pursued this strategy to much effect over the years. 

The difference this time around is that Pyongyang is now a nuclear power on the cusp of completing an ambitious intercontinental ballistic missile program. 

Thankfully, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull brought a timely, sober warning to the region this week, stating on Jan. 18 in Tokyo that the North and South marching together at the Olympics, while a welcome development, will not denuclearize the Korean peninsula. 

In this light, it is vital that policymakers get real about Kim Jong Un’s bottom line. 

Kim’s conduct in 2017 alone demonstrated in full color his intentions. The brazen, full-speed-ahead development of the regime’s nuclear weapons program in defiance of international sanctions and replete with missile tests; the assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong Nam who he suspected of posing as a threat to his power; and the public and personal brinkmanship with President TrumpDonald John TrumpBroward County official Brenda Snipes submits resignation after criticism Retired lieutenant general tears into Trump over attacks against Navy SEAL: 'Disgusting' Senate barrels toward showdown over Trump's court picks MORE all point to his objective of staying in power. 

The survival of the Kim Dynasty is paramount for Mr. Kim. He views a functioning nuclear weapons program as key to these ends, regardless of the severe economic fallout and suffering of his people due to the ensuing sanctions against his government. 

Seoul and Washington must recognize that Kim is doing more than simply trying to take advantage of the public relations and propaganda opportunities afforded by the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. Rather, he is buying time for further work on the regime’s nuclear weapons program all while trying to create tension and division within the U.S.-South Korea alliance. 

Along these lines, Pyongyang has demonstrated that it will not sit down for arms talks until it has mastered and demonstrated the capability of conducting a nuclear strike against a U.S. city. 

This was reflected during the initial North-South talks of Jan. 9 in which North Korean delegation head Ri Son Gwon made the extra effort to clarify that the regime’s weapons program was not up for debate and were “only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, China or Russia”. 

If past negotiations are any indication, the next round of discussions will include demands by Pyongyang for a permanent stop to U.S.-South Korea joint military training and perhaps even a complete withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula. This, in addition to calls for sanctions relief, investment and possibly a reopening of shuttered cross border economic zones at which South Korean enterprises in years past hired tens of thousands of North Korean laborers, generating significant hard currency for the regime. 

Seoul and Washington would be well served to remember Pyongyang’s long track record of cheating on past agreements and summarily abandoning its commitments.

Although prospects are gloomy for substantive progress in rolling back or halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, it is important that Washington and Beijing get seats at the table in the next session of talks as any resolution to the crisis will necessarily involve both countries. 

For the foreseeable future, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo can most effectively protect themselves against a nuclear North Korea by adopting the West’s best practices from the Cold War — a long-term strategy of containment, sanctions and deterrence with overwhelming capabilities, all while leaving the door open for talks with Pyongyang and Beijing. 

The upcoming games in Pyeongchang, like all Olympiads, are a time to celebrate human achievement and to recommit towards creating goodwill among nations. Yet, this is not a time to attribute the best of intentions to an emboldened North Korean regime that is the newest member of the nuclear weapons club, not to mention a serial violator of human rights and dignity. We mustn’t view Pyongyang’s latest overtures through rose-colored glasses.

Ted Gover, Ph.D. is an instructor of political science at Central Texas College, U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton​, California​.