North Korea stirs complex emotions, as coverage of the Winter Olympic opening ceremony shows. Most of the coverage naturally focused on Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un and the first member of the ruling Kim family to set foot in South Korea. Of all the VIPs who attended the opening ceremony, she received the most attention and was even designated “the star” of the Olympics.
US Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, meanwhile, were the “bad guys.” Some coverage criticized Pence’s refusal to greet the North Koreans or to stand as the two Korean teams entered together under the symbolic unification flag as arrogant and petty. Abe also refused to stand, and reports had it that his talks with Moon had been frosty.
President Moon, the host of the show, appeared at the center of all the events, but he received less attention than he deserved. Amid all the flurry of media interest in Kim Yo-jong and other things North Korean, Moon accomplished much during the weekend.
Moon Jae-in came to office in May amid rapidly rising tensions between the US and North Korea over the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. As tensions rose, President Trump and Kim Jong-un exchanged sharp threats that sent shivers down the spines of seasoned diplomats. The US demanded that North Korea give up its weapons programs, something the North has consistently refused to do. These positions predate Trump and Kim, but the speed of North Korea’s progress and Trump’s hardline stance have taken tensions to a new level.
Amid the rapid rise in tension, President Moon has taken a pragmatic course. He has focused intently on denuclearization through negotiation while cooperating closely with the US. For all of 2017, North Korea largely ignored Moon in the hope that it could scare the US into recognizing it as a nuclear power. This follows from North Korea’s long-standing policy of trying to delegitimize South Korea by dealing directly with the US.
The US, meanwhile, has demanded that North Korea stop its nuclear and ballistic missile programs as a pre-condition to any talks. North Korea has continued the tests and the US has responded by asking the UN to impose ever-harsher economic sanctions. The UN Security Council has agreed to US requests each time. To bolster the sanctions, the US has kept the possibility of a military response on the table and, more recently, has stepped up criticism of North Korea’s human rights record.
By the end of 2017, North Korea appeared boxed in, which explains why Kim Jong-un used the Olympics as a chance to reach out to South Korea. The scene of the entire US government giving a North Korean defector a standing ovation at the end of the State of the Union Address in January shows that the US has moved closer to a war footing. Kim would no doubt like to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US, but his more immediate need is finding a way to start negotiations without losing face. This explains why Kim invited Moon to a summit in Pyongyang.
President Moon’s pragmatic course has brought criticism from the left and right. The hard left in Korea is virulently anti-American and believes that the two Koreas should stand together against American aggression. The hard right is passionately pro-American and believes that South Korea should try to topple the North Korean government. People who lean toward either side have more moderate views, but both have been critical of Moon’s approach.
Moon accepted the invitation to visit Pyongyang under the right conditions. He also recommended that North Korea reach out to the US. This shows the North Koreans that there is no wedge between South Korea and the US and it reminds them that, as Vice President Pence’s attitude suggested, time may be running out. Trump has said that he is open to talking, and Moon now finds himself at the center of efforts to get talks moving.
The media loves a flashy story, and Kim Yo-jong provided plenty of flash, but the real star of the show was President Moon. His pragmatic approach has set in motion events that could lead to substantive negotiations for denuclearization and peace. History is littered with missed chances for peace, and it is now up to North Korea to seize the moment and move forward.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.