With the “Peace Olympics” in South Korea drawing to a close and the season for military drills in the region fast approaching, Asia Times surveys the key issues hanging over the Korean peninsula in the weeks and months ahead.
1. Why are the 2018 Winter Olympics so critical, in political terms?
They have offered a breathing space amid unprecedentedly high peninsular tensions. Following a furious and very personal war of words between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump, North Korea test-fired a ballistic missile in November 2017. It had the range to reach all of the United States. Analysts are divided over how close North Korea is to possessing a full nuclear deterrent – questions hang, particularly, over its re-entry vehicles and targeting systems – but there is now a clear and present danger to the continental US. This changes the game for the Seoul-Washington alliance. Since the Korean War wound up in 1953, the alliance has been designed to defend South Korea against North Korea. Now, the US is also in North Korea’s crosshairs. Accordingly, the Trump administration has made the North Korea crisis the centerpiece of its foreign policy.
2. What does South Korean President Moon Jae-in want?
Since taking power in May 2017, the liberal Moon has consistently held out for dialogue with North Korea. His wishes were answered in January when North Korea announced that it would come to the Games. Moon wants to use the contacts and goodwill established during the Olympics to provide a springboard for post-Games talks to reduce tensions. Moon’s argument has been persuasive, with US President Donald Trump following his lead and agreeing to halt military exercises during the Games.
Recommended: Stealth vs. North Korea’s Air Defenses: Who Wins?
3. What does North Korean leader Kim Jong-un want?
Given the opacity surrounding North Korean governance, we cannot say for sure. But it is widely believed he wants the following:
- Relief from global sanctions in the near-term
- The halting of spring allied military drills in the mid-term
- To leverage Seoul away from Washington in the long-term. He may also want a peace treaty with the US, and the establishment of diplomatic ties
4. What does US President Donald Trump want?
North Korean denuclearization. The question is how to achieve it. Thus far, largely diplomatic options have been exercised, and Trump has said he would be willing to talk to Kim personally. However, there is increasing talk in Washington of some kind of pre-emptive strike against North Korean facilities, designed to degrade key links in its nuclear and missile manufacturing chains, and against certain military assets, such as missile launch sites, mobile launchers and command and control nets.
5. How dangerous is the Trump administration?
Trump himself appears more politically flexible than his predecessors in the White House. He could order military action – or he could sit down and build a personal relationship with Kim. Neither Bush nor Obama went to either extreme. So the risk outlook is higher – but so is the chance of a solution.
6. What have the optics been like during the Games?
In terms of North-US relations, dire. The North Koreans declined to meet US Vice President Mike Pence, reportedly after he criticized their human rights record and announced new sanctions. In terms of North-South relations, very good. The dispatch by Pyongyang of Kim Yo-jong, sister of the leader, was well received. She has extended an invitation to Moon to visit her brother.
7. What happens next?
Ivanka Trump and Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, are both scheduled to attend the Olympic closing ceremony on February 25. Pyongyang’s decision to send Kim, a former general in charge of espionage and special force assets who is held to be responsible for deadly attacks on the South in 2010, has shocked the South. Some see it as a slap in the face; others see it as a move to sow division within South Korea. However, Kim is a serious player, and may be the ideal figure to discuss military issues.
8. Will Moon meet Kim?
It looks likely. However, Kim’s offer puts Moon in a ticklish position. He cannot simply meet Kim for a photo opp, or to discuss, say, economic exchange. To satisfy Washington, and other members of the global community, he needs some commitment from Kim that substantive issues will be discussed. With Pyongyang thus far refusing to discuss denuclearization, the shared ground looks narrow.
9. What is the timeline?
- Winter Olympics end on February 25
- Winter Paralympics start on March 9
- Winter Paralympics end on March 18