"Sexy" is not the first word that comes to mind upon invoking "North Korea." But the uniquely unglamorous nature of the Kim Jong-Un regime combined with the inherent glamor of sports pageantry just may make the Winter Olympiad, held next month in South Korea, a sexy spectacle, even a smashing success — for Kim Jong-Un.
By unleashing on the South his athletes, famed female cheerleaders and performers, likely including the elite miniskirt-donning, electric guitar-riffing, all-female Moranbong band, Kim will mesmerize South Koreans, capture global spotlight, defuse tension and achieve a dramatic self-makeover as peacemaker. Should Kim jazz it up further and send his own sister, Kim Yo Jong, the Pyeongchang Olympics will essentially become the North Korean Games, hosted and paid for by the South.
However, the rapprochement had nothing to do with ping pong and everything to do with realpolitik: The common perceived threat of the Soviet Union, Beijing’s bid to take Taiwan’s seat in the United Nations Security Council, and Nixon’s campaign of “winning” China as he was hopelessly losing Vietnam. Secret bilateral talks between the United States and China had preceded ping pong by some 18 months. But the myth endures.
On the other hand, Pyongyang’s latest calculated proposition may prove long on both glamor and substance for Kim. By taking over the Winter Olympiad, Kim will not only soften his image around the world, but, far more importantly, secure a free pass on his next big provocation — even if it’s an intercontinental ballistic missile or nuclear test right in the middle of the Games.
February 16, the birthday of his late father, Kim Jong-Il, is known as the “Greatest Festival of the Korean ethnic nation.” In 2018, the date, by the lunar calendar, is New Year’s Day, which is celebrated in both Koreas. In February 2013, Kim Jong-Un marked the holiday with a nuclear test. Should he again choose to celebrate with a bang, the United States will find itself furiously hamstrung.
With tens of thousands of athletes, officials and visitors from almost 100 countries gathered in South Korea, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE would be forced to grit his teeth and defer to Seoul’s initiative of placating Pyongyang. Even if Kim opts for a post-Olympics blast, the afterglow of sports hypnosis will inure him against reprisals. In a strange dynamic that may be called the “Seoul Syndrome,” Pyongyang’s bewitching mix of gangsterism and come-ons usually inspires Seoul to pay up.
All this is a predictable ploy. With a triumphant ballistic year under his belt, to de-escalate at the start of 2018 and paint President Donald Trump as the troublemaker is a no-cost, high pay-off move. A key element in this game is to dangle before Seoul the prospects for continued inter-Korean talks. This come-on works best under periodic threats peppered with the rubric of pan-Korean ethnic nationalism, the message that it’s none other than the Korean minjok (“ethnic nation”) themselves — as the masters of their own destiny — who must forge Korea’s future together, exclusive of outside powers, namely, the United States.
The message resonates powerfully in the North and the South. For example, it is no coincidence that this word, minjok, appears four times in the three paragraph-long joint statement from this month’s inter-Korean talks, or that the North runs a government propaganda website called “Uri Minzzok kiri” (By Our Minjok Only), or that this collective Korean aspiration for an united, free-of-U.S.-control-Korea is highlighted in the very first article of the June 2000 joint statement between the leaders of the North and South.
The path to the Games will be strewn with traps, namely minjok-wrapped inter-Korean projects such as the familiar one-shot, chaperoned, hello-and-goodbye-forever family meetings. Thornier questions such as the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, where over 50,000 North Korean workers were employed by South Korean companies and which served as a cash funnel in excess of $100 million per year for Pyongyang, will be discussed sooner than later.
Such seemingly benign “progress” in inter-Korean relations will make Washington and Tokyo nervous, as the new fuzzy atmospherics will allow Kim to buy time and funds with which to perfect his weapons, while painting Trump as the perpetually petulant party. It would spell a return to the self-defeating policy of Seoul and Washington subsidizing and sanctioning the same target at the same time, undermining the momentum built over the past several months of enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang.
Today, the real question lies in just how long the Trump administration will stay the course and enforce sanctions in the face of Pyongyang’s crafty campaign of provocations and peace overtures. The George W. Bush administration, for example, despite its highly effective financial measures against the Kim regime, not to mention unmitigated ideological hostility toward it, settled for a capitulatory deal in the wake of Pyongyang’s serious escalation, its first nuclear test in October 2006. The incentive for such expedients will continue to remain a “rational” option.
President Trump must realize that sanctions take time to bear effect, a period of at least three years. As Kim Jong-Un’s ability to support his generals and security apparatus are increasingly diminished, it will become clear to the young leader what choices lie before him: Reform and dismantle his nuclear arsenal and gulags, live each day in gripping fear of premature extinction, or live out the rest of his life in posh exile.
The Pyongyang-anointed Pyeongchang Games, like all things sexy, will prove a flashy memory. But Kim’s growing nuclear threat is poised to become, in spite of — or, thanks to — the Olympic torch, a future-preempting flame. For the United States to place faith in sports pageantry and its hypnotic after-effects would be to accelerate, if not ensure, that grim eventuality.
Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.