The hype around North Korea’s participation in the Olympics is astonishing . The headlines in the Western media particularly have been remarkably forward in suggesting a major breakthrough is imminent because of an inter-Korean squad and the attendance of the sister of the North Korean leader. And there has been a disturbing amount of fawning over the North’s participation. The consensus seems to be that because Mike Pence did not smile, or that because the North Korean cheerleading squad is pretty or just novel, the North Koreans have scored some sort of propaganda victory.
This is all rather preposterous. Are we really suggesting that decades of stalemate are suddenly being thawed because of some athletes or a few telegenic personalities? Do we really need to be reminded of the deep and enduring divisions which have made the peninsula so tense? Has everyone forgotten that inter-Korean cultural and sports exchange has happened before and did not lead to much?
This is not to say that we should not try. Of course we should. North Korea is the most dangerous country in the world, and nuclear weapons make it yet more so. And if cultural and athletic sharing can help lay some groundwork or improve the mood, fine. Why not? Conservatives and hawks who are hyperventilating that somehow South Korea is on the cusp of selling out should relax. The road from an inter-Korean athletic squad to decoupling is lot rockier than this month’s euphoria would suggest. Rather it seems that letting our desire and anxiety—depending on whether you are a dove or a hawk—about a Korean breakthrough get the better of us. Neither Korea is impulsive or credulous enough to make a serious concession based on Olympic exhilaration. The likelihood is far greater that U.S.-South Korean military exercises later this spring or North Korean nuclear and/or missile testing will kick things back to the pre-Olympic status quo.
One genuine possibility for change though is the invitation by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to South Korean president Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang. There has not been an inter-Korean summit since 2007, and obviously it would not be held, or offered, without some anticipation of a serious talks. If Moon goes, then there is a genuine possibility of some kind of deal.
But again, all sides should manage their expectations. The South Korea left will almost certainly militate for the summit on its own terms, and as a way to push back on much-loathed President Donald Trump and his belligerent rhetoric. It will hype this relentlessly as a possible turning point which the Americans should not sabotage. The South Korean and American right will similarly get carried away that this is “appeasement.” Once again though, the likely outcome is a lot less dramatic than everyone seems to think, and Moon has already telegraphed that by saying he could go only if certain conditions were met. He is already hedging, because the constraints on him are high:
There have already been two inter-Korean summits, one in 2000 and one in 2007. Neither was a particular success. They were heavy on symbolism and nationalism, but thin on durable agreements bringing the two sides closer. The first one also required a personal pay-off of $500 million to Kim Jong-il, the North Korean leader at the time. There will be enormous scrutiny by hawks and conservatives of this summit for such mafiosi behavior. Moon will be unable to make black market or sanctions-busting concessions this time (even if he was willing to), because everyone will be watching to insure this is not just a shake-down of gullible South Korean liberals.
Moon is a Minority President
President Moon was elected last spring with just 43 percent of the vote. South Korea is a first-past-the-post system, so Moon did not need a majority. He is the legitimate president. That said, I doubt he has the political space to go to Pyongyang and give away something substantial—like an end to exercises with the U.S. military, which is likely what Pyongyang will demand. Indeed, the likely reason Moon hedged on the invitation to Pyongyang is this political weakness. He almost certainly wants to go, but he does not have broad enough backing to say “yes” immediately. He needs to make sure that conservatives in the National Assembly and press will not pillory him as an appeaser or traitor. Any deal with the North which does not have at least grudging conservative consent will fail.
America’s Informal Consent is All-But Required
Finally, Moon is constrained by the reality of the U.S. alliance. South Korean liberals will complain vociferously about this and inevitably blame the United States for sinking the summit when little comes of it. But the reality is that without the United States, South Korea would spend about triple what it does now on defense. So it cannot make a unilateral deal with Pyongyang unless it is prepared to go it alone, for which there is little real support in South Korea. The South Korean left loves to attack the alliance for political purposes, but no one seriously proposes ending it. And this constraint works the other way too. Trump may want to attack North Korea, but as long as the United States is allied to South Korea, it needs Seoul’s buy-in.