There are worrying signs with 15 days left to the opening of the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games. Though the Moon Jae-in administration is trying to further inter-Korean dialogue and make a breakthrough in resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, its servile attitude to the North is causing side effects and concern.
The government reportedly told prominent North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho and others to refrain from criticizing the North during the Winter Olympics. Seoul will also tone down celebrations of the delivery of new fighter jets from the US.
On Jan. 18, the government did not give the go-ahead to a request from a US nuclear-powered submarine to stop at Busan as a port of call. It is said to have suggested a lower-key Jinhae naval base, but the sub instead diverted to a US base in Japan.
A day earlier, the government stoked international controversy by proposing to the North to celebrate the eve of the Olympics at the North’s Kumgangsan mountain and hold a joint training session at its Masikryong ski resort. The two places in North Korea are appropriate for its peace offensive or the propaganda of its achievements.
The North on Sunday delayed an advance team’s visit to the South without explaining why. And yet the South expressed no regrets. Rather it expressed bitterness against news media’s critical reports of inter-Korean talks and North Korea.
National Intelligence Service agents blocked reporters from flocking to Hyon Song-wol, the leader of the team, to ask her questions, saying, “She may feel ill at ease. Don’t ask her questions over and over.” Media were kept away from all the venues as the team inspected, except for a few places where any pedestrian could catch a glimpse of them. The government released official video footage of her, but her voice was edited out reportedly at the request of the North.
The South certainly tried to treat her and her team generously, but it is questionable if the government has put as much effort into obtaining the whereabouts of six South Koreans detained in the North.
Despite and probably due to the South’s efforts to curry favor, the North has moved further away from the breakthrough Moon wants to make.
North Korea on Tuesday changed its Armed Forces Day from April 25 to Feb. 8, and is said to be preparing a large-scale military inspection on the day.
Feb. 8 is a day before the opening of the PyeongChang Olympics. Kim’s intention is clear. He will use the military review to stake the nation’s claim as a nuclear state. An array of intercontinental ballistic missiles are expected to be paraded.
Pyongyang demanded a permanent suspension of Korea-US joint military exercises at an international disarmament forum in Geneva on Tuesday. The military drills were temporarily suspended ahead of the games to attract the North to the sports meet in the South. Pyongyang is making bolder demands.
Another serious problem for the South are the concerns of allies about the North’s moves. The inter-Korean accords for its Olympic participation are raising tension in the alliance, showing signs of division among them.
US Vice President Mike Pence, due to attend the Winter Olympics to cheer on the US team, reportedly plans to try to counter Kim Jong-un’s effort to “hijack” the games with a propaganda campaign. The South Korean government on Tuesday rejected criticism that the games had been hijacked by North Korea.
Japan has been wary of any rapprochement with North Korea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who announced he will be attending the games’ opening ceremony, will discuss “maximizing pressure on the North” with Moon during his visit to South Korea.
If dialogue with Pyongyang on its Olympic participation opens up the opportunity for talks on its nuclear and missile programs, it couldn’t be better. But the North can hardly be expected to move that way. Moon must not forget that the sanctions forced Kim to offer dialogue. The government must avoid emboldening Kim while weakening the sanctions and its alliances.