The Pyeongchang Olympics is North Korea's Winter Offensive
But this South Korean backstory helps explain why North Korean strategists may hope that they can tempt the current ROK government to stray away from the “maximum pressure” campaign, and manipulate it into helping enable the North’s own strategic objectives—just as North Korea attempted, with some success, to traduce two previous Presidencies in Seoul during the “Sunshine” era of 1998–2008.
The consequence Pyongyang assigns to its current winter offensive in the South is indicated by its provenance. The North’s proposal for participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics—and for North and South to strive anew “to improve relations between themselves and take measures for achieving a decisive breakthrough”—was issued not by some faceless spokesman for the Kim family regime. It was uttered by Dear Respected himself, and in his annual New Year address. In the North Korean system, no suggestion—or demand—can come with higher priority.
Add to this the remarkable gesture of sending the Royal Sister to the South, with a personal letter of invitation from Kim Jong-un to President Moon for a summit in Pyongyang, and we can see the immense import the Kim family regime places on this initiative.
This is the diplomatic equivalent of betting the house on South Korea’s compliance. The North has pulled out all the stops on this one. Pyongyang would never do such a thing if this were not deemed to serve an absolutely urgent purpose of state for the Kim family regime.
Exactly where things go from here, of course, remains unclear. South Korea had its own, entirely nonideological, reasons for inviting North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics: high among them, a desire to minimize the chances that the extortionist next door might pull one of its all too familiar scary-menace routines to disrupt the Pyeongchang spectacle.
Ordinary South Koreans, moreover, are decidedly more jaded about “inter-Korean dialogue” nowadays than in earlier years, and are correspondingly more wary about getting rolled (again). Then there is the matter of what we might call the “internationalization” of the North Korean nuclear crisis. The DPRK now faces a thicket of sanctions and strictures laid down not just by the United States, but by the UN Security Council; doing anything to violate or circumvent them could have serious international implications for the ROK. All in all, it is not clear how much wiggle room the Moon administration has in any prospective parlays with the North, even if it were inclined to give away the store.
That said: the first steps in the latest North-South dance are not entirely reassuring to those who fear a resumption of the all-take/no-give dynamic that characterized earlier episodes of North-South “engagement”.
As a goodwill gesture, the South (with Washington’s blessing) postponed the joint U.S.-ROK winter training exercises until after the Olympics; the North pocketed the concession without pretense of reciprocity. To accommodate North Korean athletes on an all-Korea team, the ROK acquiesced in a blue peninsular banner to represent the joint participants—thereby making South Korea the only host country in the history of the Olympics to sacrifice its own national flag at such ceremonies. To facilitate visits by North Korea’s high-level delegation, its athletes, and its cheering squads, Seoul interceded with the UN Security Council (and with Washington) to get special waivers for sanctioned regime officials, and sanctioned North Korean vessels: a practice that could set precedents and offer a foretaste of things to come. And already one hears rumors of grumbling within the Blue House that Seoul should not be subjected to interference from outside when it is deliberating on inter-Korean affairs. It is almost as if these things are considered to be a domestic matter. This is a point of view ominously consonant with North Korea’s propaganda refrain Uriminjokkiri (“among our own nationality”, as in self-determination), which is Pyongyang’s code-language for ending the U.S.-ROK military alliance and getting U.S. troops out of the peninsula.
Thus far, neither Seoul nor Washington have committed any serious unforced errors in the face of Pyongyang’s winter offensive. President Moon has indicated that he intends to go summiting in Pyongyang—with the qualification that “conditions” for such a meeting be “created.” On the U.S. side, Vice President Pence (who was criticized in the news and on social media for not clapping for the joint Korean team during his Winter Olympics visit) endorsed the Moon government’s idea of pursuing talks with the North. That, however, was the easy part. The tougher part comes now.
The United States and the ROK (and yes—also Japan) must carefully coordinate and prepare for what Pyongyang has already laid in store. The North has given far more consideration to what it wants to get out of this vaunted summit than have the ROK and her allies. It is not too much to suggest that the future prospects for the Kim family regime rest on the outcome of its winter offensive. This particular game is theirs to lose—and the Kim family regime has no intention of losing it.
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), and is senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR).