President Moon Jae-in is extremely lucky to play host to the Winter Olympics just nine months after his inauguration. The honor could have gone to former president Park Geun-hye, had it not been for the disastrous Choi Soon-sil scandal.
Moon should be particularly happy to have declared the 23rd Winter Games open, because a handful of North Korean athletes marched into the PyeongChang Stadium as members of a joint team from “Corea,” the result of his strenuous efforts to have the North participate in the world festival of sports on snow and ice.
But the president of this divided nation hardly draws envy from other world leaders, as he is faced with the daunting task of accommodating the selfish positions of surrounding powers concerning North Korean nuclear and missile threats. North Korea, a trivial competitor in winter sports, scored big outside the games’ sporting arenas by inviting President Moon to summit talks in Pyongyang.
Kim Yo-jong, the only sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, stole much of the show during her stay in the South for 2 1/2 days, introducing herself as a special envoy of her brother, currently the No. 1 troublemaker against world peace. She carried an olive branch from Pyongyang in the form of a personal letter from Kim, unprecedented in the history of the division of the Korean Peninsula.
Moon, however, avoided a direct response to the invitation, calling for “mutual efforts to create conditions that could allow such a visit.” Yet, no genius in diplomacy can even conceive conditions enabling top-level inter-Korean dialogue under present circumstances. Washington refuses to have any contact before the North takes a step back while Pyongyang demands the world community recognize it as a nuclear power.
South Koreans bear few fantasies about an inter-Korean summit. Cynics say the first between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il in 2000 only got a Nobel Peace Prize for the South Korean president and a secret remittance of $400 million for Pyongyang. And the second in 2007 between Roh Moo-hyun and the same North Korean leader resulted in a two-page joint communique that was quickly forgotten by the two governments.
As a precondition for a 2018 summit, Pyongyang will first ask for the cessation of the annual joint Korea-US military exercises. Expecting this, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe urged Moon during their brief meeting last week that South Korea and the US should start the joint drill immediately after the Winter Olympics end. Moon retorted that the request amounted to interference in domestic affairs, revealing the degree of discord among the allies.
On the other hand, Moon and Kim Yo-jong met four times during the 56 hours she was in the South. They sat side by side like old acquaintances at the Gangneung ice rink watching the joint women’s hockey team play against Switzerland and enjoyed the performance of the North’s Samjiyon Orchestra at the National Theater in Seoul. Nothing was revealed about the chats between the president and Kim Jong-un’s special envoy during the amicable time.
Have the president and his aides decided to forget about the North’s sixth nuclear test in September last year and recent intercontinental ballistic missile launches while the visitors were in the South? Blue House sources said that the president’s conversations with Pyongyang’s delegation did not cover the nuclear and missile issues or the joint Korea-US exercise. But what other topics of discussion could there be between them?
Both Kim Yo-jong and Kim Yong-nam, the 90-year-old titular head of state, acted perfectly to qualify as members of a friendship mission. An impressed broadcast commentator referred to the “Mona Lisa smile” of the first sister from the North. Anyway, Kim Yeo-jong and Hyon Song-wol, the Morabong Band leader known to be an old friend of Kim Jong-un’s, were the best-chosen characters for his Olympic scenario.
As if to prove that blood is thicker than water, President Moon, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, presidential chief of staff Im Jong-suk and Unification Minister Cho Myung-gyun took turns dining with members of the North Korean delegation during its stay in the South. People compared their warm treatment to the meager hospitality the Chinese offered President Moon during his three-day visit to Beijing in December, limited to two official meals.
Kim Yo-jong wrote in the guestbook at the Blue House, “Wishing that Pyongyang and Seoul will become closer in the minds of our people with unification in prosperity becoming nearer in the future.” Her handwriting was surprisingly similar to that of her brother, father and grandfather, whose signatures and handwritten orders have been publicized by the North Korean official media.
Some noted Kim Yeo-jong’s lofty stature from the fact that she belonged to Kim Il-sung’s “Baekdu bloodline,” so called because the North Korean founder’s first son Jong-il was purportedly born in a secret camp on the holy Baekdusan mountain during his anti-Japanese campaign. But the sanctity of the bloodline seems less important since Kim Jong-un ordered the deaths of Jang Song-thaek, the husband of his father’s sister, soon after he took power, and Kim Jong-nam, his older half brother, in Kuala Lumpur last year.
President Moon invested a lot in the Olympic delegates from the North. Yet, no one can tell how the close brother-sister ties in the Pyongyang leadership will change in the future. After the North Koreans left, pure sporting vigor returned to PyeongChang, Gangneung and Jeongseon. It looks an easy goal for Korean athletes to achieve fourth or fifth place in the overall medal standing, as they have honed their skills with the pride of hosts.
When the games are over, global spectators will realize how close the Olympic sites are to the Korean Demilitarized Zone and how volatile a flash point this country is in today’s troubled world. President Moon may wrap up the event with satisfaction that his soft approach to the North risking friction with the US has contributed to the reduction of tension and enabled the world to enjoy the peaceful festival of goodwill.
Korea’s leader will now have to start a truly difficult game which will require the best of best strategies as well as a great deal of wisdom and tenacity not only to deal with the weapons of mass destruction-toting North Koreans, but also with allies. On the other hand, Moon needs to make the effort to reset domestic politics with tolerance and compromise, so he can better concentrate on the conundrum of North Korean nuclear and missile threats.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. – Ed.