A Détente in the Korean Peninsula


South Koreans waving their “unification flags” at a hockey game (Jung Yeon-Je/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images).

Over the past two weeks, North and South Korea have entered into historic negotiations in preparation for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. This is occurring after a two-year long diplomatic standoff across the Korean peninsula and months of escalating tensions due to North Korea’s missile tests. In addition, 20 countries including the United States, Canada, and South Korea met in Vancouver last week to discuss international policy on North Korea. The United States vowed to continue to push its “maximum pressure” campaign, which President Trump boasts has brought North Korea to the negotiating table. Yet, despite this thawing in relations in the Korean Peninsula, North Korea continues to refuse to discuss denuclearization, and based on a historical precedent such as the fallout of the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea cannot be trusted to follow through on international agreements.          

Among the key takeaways of these North-South Korea negotiations, which occurred in the “truce village” Panmunjom, was the announcement of the reopening of a military hotline across the demilitarized zone (DMZ). This creates a channel of direct dialogue and thus eases tensions across the 38th parallel.

In addition, upon invitation by the South, North Korea agreed to send a delegation of athletes to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, along with journalists, a cheerleading team, performers, and a taekwondo demonstration team. The two Koreas announced that they will create a joint female ice hockey team to participate in the Games. Moreover, they agreed that athletes from both nations will march together under a common pro-unification flag, as they had most recently done in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy. Reunification of the Korean Peninsula remains a long-term goal of both countries since the North-South Joint Declaration was signed in 2000, although the political and economic climates of each country have continued to diverge over the years.

In order to facilitate North Korea’s participation in the Olympics, South Korea said it would consider temporarily lifting certain sanctions, in coordination with the United Nations. In addition, South Korea proposed a temporary reunification of families that were separated by the Korean War, similarly to the 2015 three-day reunification in which 250 people travelled from South Korea to a North Korean tourist resort to meet with their loved ones across the border. This reunification would take place during the Lunar New Year, which is in the middle of the Olympic Games.         

Given a year of high tensions on the Korean Peninsula, many wonder what caused this sudden diplomatic breakthrough. It is likely that South Korea entered into the negotiations in order to lessen public fear over a nuclear confrontation at the Pyeongchang Olympics. In addition, South Korea wishes to avoid an outcome similar to that of the 1988 Seoul Olympic games, in which North Korea violently expressed its anger at the International Olympic Committee’s decision to make South Korea the host instead of co-hosting the Games in both countries. Before the 1988 Games, North Korean spies planted an explosive that killed 17 South Korean officials and bombed a Korean Air flight destined for Seoul, resulting in the death of 115 people. Thus, South Korea has a strong incentive to avoid any tensions with its Northern neighbor during this international sporting event.          

However, many South Koreans have criticized President Moon Jae-in for making significant concessions with the North, and for “sacrificing Olympic ideals” to reach a diplomatic agreement. President Moon’s approval ratings recently dropped to a four-month low of 67 percent, showing the significant dissatisfaction of South Korean youth and conservatives with the Olympic détente. In fact, many South Koreans oppose having their athletes walk under a pro-unification flag, and would prefer to have them solely represent South Korea.          

Despite internal disagreements, it is relatively intuitive to understand the South’s motivation behind its compromises, yet it is more difficult to assess why North Korea has been willing to come to the negotiating table. Some leaders, such as President Moon of South Korea, have publicly hailed President Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea, claiming that this pressure weakened the totalitarian dictatorship to the point of negotiation. “I am giving a lot of credit to President Trump… I am expressing my gratitude,” Mr. Moon said after the latest round of negotiations was concluded. Yet, a majority of other leaders around the world criticized Mr. Trump’s rash policy on North Korea, disapproving of his tweets and speeches in which he has described Kim Jong-Un as “short and fat“, called him “little rocket man”, and boasted that the United States’ nuclear button is “bigger [and] more powerful” than North Korea’s.          

Instead, it is more likely that North Korea is simply continuing its strategy of brinkmanship, where it engages in periods of diplomacy between cycles of aggression. For example, the United States (under the Clinton administration) and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework in 1994, under which North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear programs, the U.S. agreed to lift sanctions on North Korea, and political and economic relations between both nations began to normalize. However, in 2003, the United States accused North Korea of building a uranium enrichment program, and North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, claiming it wanted to produce nuclear weapons for self-defense, which resulted in the collapse of the Agreed Framework. This botched agreement, along with several other similar policy failures, has led many experts to believe that North Korea’s recent negotiations with the South is only a diplomatic cover-up, while it continues with its same intentions of building its nuclear program. In fact, during the negotiations, North Korean officials reaffirmed that denuclearization negotiation is not on the table and that the United States is North Korea’s top enemy.          

After several intense months of living with the threat of North Korea’s nuclear program, many people around the world, especially Americans and South Koreans, welcome this historic détente in the Korean Peninsula. However, South Korea is solely seeking a logistical agreement to avoid an international catastrophe at the Olympic Games, while North Korea is buying time to continue developing its nuclear program. Furthermore, given North Korea’s history of reneging on international agreements, one must keep a watchful eye on a temporary band-aid over a politically complex and military worrisome conflict.

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