24 March 2018

Saturday, 16:01



For the first time in many years, senior North and South Korean officials share not threats but handshakes



A big sport event, winter Olympic games in South Korean Pyeongchang, finished successfully. Not only the outstanding performance of athletes but also the triumph of Olympic spirit manifested by the rapprochement of the two Koreas is truly remarkable. How long and deep the warming between the two parts of the Korean peninsula, the Communist North (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK) and the capitalist South (Republic of Korea, RK), will be? This is the most intriguing question left behind the Games in Pyeongchang.

The situation on the Korean Peninsula has been growing with increasing frequency throughout the last year. The peak of aggravation was the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, the largest in the history of both countries, and the launch of the advanced intercontinental ballistic missile from the North Korea. Confrontation between the Koreas has intensified amidst the development of the North Korean nuclear program, especially after the U.S. administration explicitly expressed its desire to prevent Pyongyang's further advancement in the “atomic direction” by any means.

However, at the very end of 2017 and early this year, there was a noticeable warming in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, suggested that the U.S. postpone the next joint military exercises until the Olympic Games are over. The North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, appreciated the initiative of his counterpart and stressed the need to improve relations with Seoul in his regular New Year address. On January 3, Seoul and Pyongyang reconstructed the special communication line in the border village of Panmunjom, and on January 9, South Korean Minister of Unification, Cho Myung-gyun, and the Chairman of the North Korean Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, Ri Son-gwon, held talks. Both sides declared their readiness to hold high-level negotiations and arrange a visit of North Korean government delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics. Indeed, the capital of the main sporting event held every four years was visited by a high-ranked North Korean delegation chaired by the nominal head of the country, the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, Kim Yong-nam, and the sister of the North Korean leader, Kim Yo-jong.

However, the main symbolic gestures of rapprochement were demonstrated at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, when the teams of South and North Korea marched under a pro-unification flag as a single team. This was followed by the participation of the united women’s hockey team of the two Koreas. Kim Yo-jong took part in the so-called Olympic ‘smile diplomacy’, a joint event of the United Women's Hockey Team and the North Korean team of cheerleaders.

Olympic surprises were also presented at the level of political contacts. Kim Yo-jong conveyed to President Moon Jae-in a personal invitation from the North Korean leader to visit Pyongyang.

Just before the end of the Olympics, the command of the South Korean armed forces made a significant decision to exclude direct criticism of Kim Jong-un from its propaganda broadcasts against the neighbouring country.

All these mutual curtsies of the Koreans have materialised into various versions in the experts’ community as to the reasons of the observed warming. Almost all of them agree however, that the ongoing situation is beneficial to both Pyongyang and Seoul.

For South Korea, it was extremely important to ensure a safe climate during the Olympics by reducing regional tensions. North Korea decided to take advantage of such a unique opportunity to weaken as much as possible the U.S.-formed coalition between Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo.

Yet this pragmatic approach of the neighbouring countries does not underplay the significance of the fact both countries proved to themselves and the whole world: an ability to conduct a peaceful and amicable dialogue. The only question is whether this truly positive moment proves to be enough to bring the Korean peoples closer. After all, the Koreans still have to overcome many obstacles to reach this glorious objective. This was evident even when both the southerners and northerners were mesmerised by the prospects of unification throughout the Olympics event.


Stumbling blocks

The U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence was the person who offered a dose of reality to the participants of the Pyeongchang performance. In his statement made on the way home from the Games about Washington’s plans to introduce new sanctions against North Korea, Pence made it clear that the intention was to “maximise pressure” on Pyongyang “until North Koreans are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearisation.”

Just two days before the end of the Olympics, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the adoption of sanctions announced by Pence, the most ambitious in the history of restrictive measures against North Korea. This includes the measures to further reduce the sources of currency and fuel used by North Korea to develop its nuclear program and support the armed forces. In addition, the U.S. toughens control over compliance with the sanctions regime by maritime vessels of any state. Several units of the U.S. Coast Guard, one of the five types of the U.S. armed forces, are expected to appear near the borders of North Korea to achieve this goal.

Thus, Washington demonstrates its determination to prevent the development of the North Korean nuclear weapons that could reach the continental United States. However, the new American measures can seriously damage the achievements to defuse tensions between the two Koreas hardly made during the Games.

At the end of 2017, Pyongyang warned that it would regard the naval blockade by the U.S. and its allies as a public declaration of war. North Koreans have expressed their readiness to take countermeasures, which means that the American blockade can ruin the already precarious situation in the region.

A new round of American sanctions can trigger a new spiral of tension between Washington and Pyongyang. Either way, the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued the following statement: “The two Koreas have cooperated together and the Olympics was held successfully. But the U.S. brought the threat of war to the Korean peninsula with large-scale new sanctions on the DPRK ahead of the Olympics closing ceremony.”

Another threatening factor is the joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises. Seoul has managed to postpone them but they are still on the agenda of the both allies. It is not difficult to predict Pyongyang’s reaction to this event, and this is yet another weighty argument that makes us doubt the long-term outlook for the Pyeongchang warming.

The North Korean media is full of accusations against the U.S. claiming that those planning joint military manoeuvres with Seoul “intend to put an end to the emerging improvement in inter-Korean relations immediately after the Olympic Games.”

Undoubtedly, the North Korean problem continues to be a serious problem for the world community, since Pyongyang not only refuses, but also intentionally improves its nuclear program.

Japan's contribution to the international pressure exerted on Pyongyang is noteworthy. Tokyo strongly urges Pyongyang to make concessions. Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, is known for his critical stance on the initiatives of his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in, who clearly attempts to reach agreement with North Korea. Incidentally, the American president made his last sharp statements on Pyongyang after his talks with Shinzo Abe, who, like Donald Trump, supports the tough pressure policy on North Korea.

In general, the position of the major powers continues to play an instrumental role in the development of events on the Korean peninsula. Russia and China are calling for a more flexible approach to solving the problem of Pyongyang's nuclear program. Following the introduction of new American sanctions against North Korea, the Russian Federation invited the U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Joseph Y. Yun, to visit Moscow for consultations and to discuss the prospects for more intensive Russian-American dialogue on this issue.

China does not hide its displeasure over the recent decisions of Washington aimed, in particular, at establishing a naval blockade of the DPRK. Beijing insists that such actions should be implemented only upon relevant UN decisions.

Undoubtedly, there is a hope for reduced tensions on the Korean peninsula, and at least a relative improvement in relations between the both countries. In addition, one cannot exclude a certain degree of reduced confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington. It is remarkable that right after the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, the South Korean presidential administration announced the readiness of the northerners to negotiate with the U.S. Apparently, it was a conclusion to which Seoul reached after the talks between President Moon Jae-in and the representatives of North Korea who took part in the closing ceremony. Donald Trump said that the U.S. was ready for a dialogue with North Korea “only under the right conditions.”

However, the contradictions between the main parties to the conflict are so deep (ideological and political differences between Pyongyang and Seoul, on the one hand, the clash of the strategic interests of the U.S. and North Korea on the other), that it is too early to talk about the prospect of reconciliation. Maybe the Olympic flame is able to perform a miracle. After all, it is this miracle of peace, harmony and unity so long awaited by the Korean people, which vividly manifested itself throughout the Games in Pyeongchang.