Where Do the Koreas Go Post-Olympics?

The winding down of the Olympics has brought forth the prospect of renewed talks between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. The now widely reported Olympic VIP box shared by Ivanka Trump, North Korean general Kim Yong-chol, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, among others, was undoubtedly a step in the right direction. It’s the most positive tone that has been struck between the nations – especially North Korea and the United States – in quite some time, but to assume that this relative blip on the diplomatic radar is a sign of things to come is, as of now, grossly premature.

The initial reaction to North Korean leadership’s assertion that they are now ‘willing to talk’ to the United States and South Korea about peace is a cynical one. Of course they’re willing to talk. Having levied what President Trump has referred to as the “heaviest sanctions ever imposed on a country before” upon the nation, they’re hurting big time. A sanction-heavy environment tends to be one in which the Kim regime suddenly becomes more diplomatic. But, again, to think that this coming to the table is a gesture that spans anywhere beyond self-serving is to accept that Kim Jong-un has undergone a fundamental change in his bellicose personality.

Which is clearly not the case, as illustrated by North Korea’s declaration on Sunday that United States’ ramping up of sanctions was “an act of war”. It had been previously reported that North Korea cancelled a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence during the Winter Olympics because they were unhappy about (truthful) comments he had made regarding the nation’s many human rights violations. Yet, later on Sunday, Kim’s general was in the VIP box with Ivanka Trump and Moon, though it has been reported that no verbal exchange occurred between the American and North Korean representatives.

It was never likely that such an exchange would occur, especially considering the representative which was chosen by North Korean leadership to represent the regime, a story in and of itself. Kim Yong-chol has faced personal sanctions more than once, and his appearance in Pyeongchang for the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics sparked protests among South Koreans. He is thought to be the man responsible for masterminding attacks on South Korea in 2010 which left 46 South Korean military men dead. He has faced sanctions from the United States separately in 2010, 2015, and 2016. His choice as a representative of North Korea may say more than people realize about Kim Jong-un’s true motives, though his title is ‘chief military negotiator’.

Even with great skepticism warranted, South Korea’s president is determined to find a way to establish some sort of peace between the United States and North Korean governments. Critics of Moon worry that he may have secretly promised something – an end to America/South Korean military exercises, perhaps – in exchange for North Korea’s participation in talks going forward, though this is yet to be substantiated. It was Moon who, by all accounts, has vehemently insisted that both parties come together to avoid military conflict, which has been his stated goal all along.

‘“President Moon noted that North Korea-United States dialogue must take place soon in order to improve South-North Korean relations and to find a fundamental solution to the Korean Peninsula issue,” said Mr. Moon’s spokesman, Kim Eui-kyeom.

“To this, the North Korean delegates responded that the North was quite willing to start talks with the United States and agreed that relations between North and South Korea and those between the North and the United States should develop simultaneously.” (NYT)

But ‘talks’ have occurred several times in the past, both between the Trump administration and past American administrations and the Kim regime. There’s no tangible reason to believe that Kim will willingly abandon the nuclear missile program which he has sunk so much of the nation’s money and national identity into. It, at this point, is one of his government’s few points of pride, and he has put virtually all his eggs in the nuclear basket. While he may become more secretive and less openly provocative of the United States for self-preservation’s sake, a complete change in policy toward nuclear armament seems far-fetched.

Sure, he’ll allow his representatives to attend meetings, to talk. But, if his spokesperson is going to cancel meetings because the United States leadership criticizes North Korean human rights violations, it’s unlikely that ‘negotiations’ will get very far. The North Korean government seems as thin-skinned as ever, while the Trump administration has the full court press on North Korea with no signs of letting up.

Meanwhile, South Korea wants to avoid conflict a) because of the immense toll it would take on the South Korea people, both in terms of lives lost and peace compromised. And b) because the cost of (likely) paying to repair North Korea after the government fell is not a welcomed reality.

Despite these shared motives for relative peace and stability, the current landscape doesn’t seem like the environment in which diplomatic talks are likely to succeed, especially considering how far down the nuclear road North Korea already is, and how intent the Trump administration is on holding Kim accountable for past actions.

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