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[Editorial] Momentum sapped

Pyongyang’s decision to skip Tokyo Olympics dashes Seoul’s hopes of reviving dialogue

The Moon administration must have been deeply frustrated, though not dismayed, at North Korea’s decision not to participate in the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics.

The North announced Tuesday that its Olympics Committee held a general meeting March 25 and decided not to join the Tokyo Olympic Games, scheduled to start in July, to protect its athletes from the coronavirus pandemic.

The global sports event was considered probably the last remaining chance to engage with the North before President Moon Jae-in’s five-year tenure ends in May next year.

The Moon administration was eager to use it as an opportunity to put its peace agenda back on track. In a speech last month, Moon said South Korea would cooperate with Japan to ensure the success of the Tokyo Olympics, noting that it could offer a chance for dialogue among the two Koreas, the US and Japan.

Inter-Korean ties have remained strained in the aftermath of a no-deal summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and then-US President Donald Trump in early 2019.

The Moon administration has pandered in vain to Pyongyang in its blind pursuit of inter-Korean reconciliation. In turn, it has invited criticism for turning a blind eye to nuclear threats from the North.

It enacted a law aimed at punishing North Korean defectors and their supporters here for sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border into the North. Seoul also asked Washington to scale down their joint military drills to avoid irking the North.

Since last year, Moon and his aides have sought to improve South Korea-Japan ties, which have been strained over historical issues, in an apparent move to set the stage for reengagement with the North during the Tokyo Olympics. In their mind is the memory of the North sending a high-level delegation to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, opening the way for a string of inter-Korean summits and meetings between Kim and Trump.

With the Tokyo Olympics out of the picture as a platform for inter-Korean dialogue, it seems all but impossible to create momentum toward a breakthrough.

Pyongyang has made it clear that it has no intention of responding to peace overtures from Seoul unless the Moon administration is instrumental in getting the US to reach a deal with the North on terms set by the nuclear-armed communist state.

The belated announcement of its decision not to participate in the Tokyo Olympics, which came a day before key mayoral by-elections in the South, is seen as the latest message driving home the point. In a statement issued March 16, when the South and the US were conducting their scaled-down joint military exercise, Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of the North Korean ruler, said the road ahead for the South Korean authorities would be painful.

The Moon administration now sees its room to maneuver between Washington and Pyongyang being further diminished under the Biden administration, which has emphasized a disciplined diplomacy in dealing with North Korean issues. Since US President Joe Biden took office Jan. 20, Washington has vowed to address the dire human rights situation in the North and to consider negotiations with the recalcitrant regime only as long as the end result -- complete denuclearization -- is clearly on the road map.

The US explained the interim outcome of its ongoing North Korea policy review to South Korea and Japan during a meeting of top security officials from the three nations last week.

In a statement released after the trilateral consultations, the White House said US national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his counterparts from Washington’s two key Asian allies had affirmed their commitment to the denuclearization of the North and underscored the need for the full implementation of UN Security Council resolutions banning any nuclear or ballistic missile testing by the communist state.

But Suh Hoon, the top security aide to President Moon, struck a somewhat different tone when he told reporters after the meeting that the three sides had also agreed to make efforts to quickly resume denuclearization talks with Pyongyang.

Some observers here say the Moon administration may have set its sights on the Beijing Winter Olympics, to be held in February, as a stage for its last-ditch efforts to revive dialogue with the North. If so, it would run the risk of emboldening Pyongyang and disrupting coordination between Seoul and Washington.

Furthermore, China might see it as a chance to draw the South further into its fold amid escalating rivalry with the US.