The Korea Herald


Will PyeongChang act as a breather amid escalating tension?

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Dec. 25, 2017 - 16:16

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With about 50 days left to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, questions remain on whether North Korea will come to the games.

The Moon Jae-in administration has been struggling to reopen a solid inter-Korean dialogue channel in a bid to patch up ties that have been strained for nearly a decade. 

President Moon Jae-in speaks at a special event in July, marking 200 days until the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. (Yonhap) President Moon Jae-in speaks at a special event in July, marking 200 days until the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. (Yonhap)

Viewing the Winter Games as an opportunity to ease tension, Seoul has been urging Pyongyang to participate in the Olympics in hopes of turning it into a “peace festival.” It has reiterated the doors for North Korea will be open “until the last minute.”

Experts noted that inter-Korean sports exchanges in the past have set precedents for the creation of platforms to revive talks when political and military exchanges were at a standstill.

Paik Hak-soon, a senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, chose “military drills” and “envoys” as keywords that could determine North Korea’s presence at the resort town of PyeongChang.

If the South Korean government wants North Korea to come to PyeongChang, “the South Korea-US joint military exercise must be either halted or delayed during the Olympic Truce period,” Paik said in the think tank’s 2018 forecast.

Annual joint military drills -- Key Resolve and Foal Eagle -- are expected to coincide with the Winter Olympics and Paralympics. North Korea views these exercises as rehearsals for invasion despite the allies’ reiteration that they are defensive in nature.

In a recent interview with NBC, President Moon said he had suggested postponing the drills and the US is “currently reviewing” the possibility, but he also added it all “depends on how North Korea behaves.”

“Also, it (the South) must swiftly dispatch an envoy to the North in private to actively suggest and convince its participation in the Olympics,” added Paik, noting that PyeongChang may be the last chance for a while for Seoul to start talks with Pyongyang.

But chances North Korea will participate in the upcoming Winter Games are looking slim, although it is also difficult to confirm its absence, according to Paik.

North Korea has been maintaining an ambiguous stance toward Seoul’s offer. It missed an Oct. 30 deadline to confirm its pair figure skating spot at the Winter Games, without issuing a public statement.

Current circumstances surrounding North Korea’s fast-developing nuclear weapons program are also expected to pose a major obstacle.

On Friday, the UN Security Council slapped another round of fresh sanctions on the rogue nation to further curb its economic growth. The decision addresses North Korea’s recent launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov. 29, which experts say could put the US mainland within its target range.

Although North Korea lambasted the UNSC’s move as “an act of war,” the Korea Institute for National Unification recently said North Korea may refrain from provocations around the Olympics period.

“The atmosphere for dialogue over inter-Korean ties and North Korea’s nuclear weapons may start from May if the North suspends its nuclear and missile provocations during the Olympics, and Seoul and Washington’s military drills are delayed or scaled down,” the institute said.

“Pyongyang may deliver a positive message at its annual New Year’s address because President Moon has sent a positive signal to the North with his proposal to delay the annual joint military exercise,” Cho Sung-ryul, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Strategy, said.

By Jung Min-kyung (