The US decision to have its diplomats boycott the 2022 Beijing Olympics is posing a dilemma for South Korea, as Washington could prod allies to follow suit, while Seoul hopes to use the games as an opportunity to restart dialogue with Pyongyang.
Amid the struggle between the two global superpowers, South Korea has taken an ambiguous diplomatic position, as it values both its security alliance with the US and its economic ties with China. But with Washington’s recent announcement, South Korea is increasingly in a position where it may have to choose a side.
The situation could also jeopardize President Moon Jae-in’s plan to use the global sports event as a chance to restart the peace process on the Korean Peninsula and declare a formal end to the Korean War, together with the leaders of North Korea, the US and China.
Earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a media interview that the US had consulted allies about a “shared approach” to the Beijing Games. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez called on US allies to “share our values to join with the United States in this diplomatic boycott.”
US President Joe Biden is expected to urge the country’s allies to join the boycott this week during an upcoming democracy summit. The meeting aims to keep China in check, since Biden defines the Chinese government as an authoritarian regime, and more than 110 participating countries are likely to discuss boycotting the Beijing Winter Olympics. Moon plans to attend the event.
A number of countries, including those in the European Union, the UK, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are already reviewing whether to join the boycott, according to news reports.
Shin Beom-chul, director of the Center for Diplomacy and Security at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, said the US might call off the boycott if China takes certain steps such as releasing some of its political prisoners from Xinjiang. But that appears unlikely as China is fanning nationalism ahead of President Xi Jinping’s third term.
Shin said South Korea “should not get on either side too early.”
Cheong Wa Dae has not made any official statement and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there was nothing to comment on the diplomatic decisions of foreign governments.
But the ministry added that the Korean government has supported the successful hosting of the Beijing Winter Olympics and hopes the event will contribute to peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia, the world and inter-Korean relations.
“The US side has informed us of the decision in advance through diplomatic channels. However, in the process of communication, we have not received any demands such as requesting to participate in the boycott,” the ministry said.
Citing past Chinese efforts to draw South Korea into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a China-led multilateral development bank, Shin said the US had not taken issue with it at the time as the UK and Australia had already joined the institution before South Korea.
“This time also we should take a look at the moves of (other countries like) the UK and Australia and then decide on the position of Korea,” he said.
President Moon first proposed formally ending the Korean War at the United Nations General Assembly in September. Since then, the Beijing Games have been mentioned as a possible stage for the envisioned “peace event.” Moon has been moving ahead with plans to declare an end to the war in recent months.
South Korean national security adviser Suh Hoon recently went to China to meet with top Chinese Communist Party diplomat Yang Jiechi to seek the nation’s support for such a declaration.
A local media outlet recently reported that Cheong Wa Dae is considering delivering a letter from Moon to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the New Year. The report quoted a ruling party figure as saying Cheong Wa Dae intends to share information with North Korea about its negotiations with the US and China on declaring the war is over. The government later called the report “speculative.”
Last week, Moon met with US Defense Minister Lloyd Austin in Seoul to explain his motives for wanting to achieve such a declaration.
Despite Moon’s efforts, things are not all rosy, as the pandemic would make it difficult for Kim Jong-un to visit China. Additionally, the International Olympic Committee has refused to allow North Korea to participate in the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Shin said an end-of-war declaration could be made at another time and that the two events should not be directly related.
“However, given the changing situation, it seems to be getting more and more difficult for the US, China and North Korea to cooperate to come up with a document to reach an agreement like the declaration of an end to the war,” Shin said.
By Shin Ji-hye (firstname.lastname@example.org