North Korean leader Kim Jong Un deployed a new weapon at the Olympics to fight back against the Trump administration’s sanctions and threats of a preemptive strike against his nuclear program: His sister.
Kim Yo Jong shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, cheered enthusiastically for a unified Korean team, and displayed a sense of humor in weekend meetings. She also delivered a letter inviting Moon to a summit with her brother in Pyongyang, and asked him to play a “leading role” in reuniting the two Koreas after nearly seven decades.
The gesture sought to further exploit divisions between the US and South Korea, which differ on the best way to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons. It served as the focal point of a charm offensive designed to counter the US narrative that Kim Jong Un is a madman who tortures his own people and would blow up Los Angeles or New York City if he didn’t get his way.
North Korea’s participation in the Olympics has already allowed Kim Jong Un to undermine President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign, with some sanctions suspended temporarily until the event ends. In pushing for a summit with Moon, Kim is seeking to consolidate those gains while maintaining his nuclear arsenal to deter a US invasion.
The question now is whether the US and South Korea can stay united in keeping up the pressure on North Korea just as sanctions limiting export revenue and curbing fuel imports start to bite. While Trump’s advisers have threatened military action to prevent Kim from gaining the ability to strike the US homeland with a nuclear weapon, Moon is seeking to prevent a war that could devastate South Korea and the region.
Kim’s proposal for a summit was “a brilliant diplomatic maneuver,” said Andrei Lankov, a historian at Kookmin University in Seoul who once studied in Pyongyang. Moon would irritate Trump if he accepts the invitation, while declining would make the US and South Korea appear “unreasonably bellicose,” he said.
“The proposal, as well as North Korea’s presence at the Games, sends a signal that the North Koreans are ready to talk,” Lankov said. “And this signal helps the opponents of a military operation in Washington and elsewhere.”
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Signs of discord in the US-South Korea alliance were evident immediately after the announcement. Moon’s office initially provided conflicting accounts of whether he accepted the invitation, with a Blue House spokesperson later clarifying that pre-conditions first needed to be met.
US Vice President Mike Pence didn’t discuss the invitation with Moon Saturday while they watched a speed-skating event, a senior White House official said. Speaking to reporters later aboard Air Force One, Pence reiterated that there was “no daylight” between the US, South Korea and Japan in pushing to isolate North Korea until Kim abandons his nuclear program.
But North Korea watchers aren’t convinced that Moon will stay on script. He came to power promising a softer approach to Pyongyang and has repeatedly sought a summit with Kim Jong Un. Moon initially opposed US plans to deploy a missile shield in South Korea, and last year vowed to prevent war at all costs after Trump threatened “fire and fury” against North Korea.
“I worry he won’t want to miss the opportunity to further a new ‘sunshine policy’ and peace engagement,” Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, said of the South Korean leader. “Going to Pyongyang unconditionally would be a really bad development, and I think would anger the US Trump administration, and cause real concern with the U.S. that Moon may give too much away.”
Moon also faces the risk of a backlash at home. His approval ratings, while still high at 63 per cent, fell after he pushed for a unified women’s ice hockey team for the two Koreas. Conservative groups have protested the appearance of North Korean athletes at the Games in Pyeongchang with vulgar signs.
Joseph DeTrani, who helped broker a 2005 agreement on North Korea’s nuclear program, said Moon should attend the summit if Kim Jong Un agrees to discuss nuclear and missile issues and return to the six-party talks on denuclearization. That mirrors previous statements from Trump administration officials when asked about the possibility of talks.
Still, North Korea has shown no signs it’s willing to discuss denuclearization. Its negotiators protested last month when South Koreans raised the issue during talks over the Olympics, a line North Korea’s state-run media has reiterated. Last week, a commentary published by the Korean Central News Agency called denuclearization “a wild dream that can never come true.”
Moon won’t have much space to negotiate with North Korea without backing from the US, said Christopher Green, senior adviser on the Korean peninsula at the International Crisis Group in Amsterdam.
“His goal is to do enough on the inter-Korean front to get the United States and North Korea to jaw-jaw,” Green said. “The real strategic games have only just begun.”