The Olympic Charade


(Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo)

On Feb. 9, the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea kicked off in spectacular fashion with an opening ceremony aptly titled “Peace in Motion.” The Olympics have often served as a platform for the promotion of harmony, but rarely has the message been so pertinent as it is under the current climate on the Korean peninsula. The specter of conflict has hung over the region in recent months, fueled by posturing from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and United States President Donald Trump. However, that antagonism could not have been further from the scene at the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. Athletes from North and South Korea marched side by side, united under a single flag bearing the silhouette of a unified Korean peninsula. Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-un, attended the ceremony and met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Kim Yo-jong left a well-received message in the presidential guest book, writing, “I hope Pyongyang and Seoul get closer in our people’s hearts and move forward the future of prosperous unification.”

The recent display of fellowship, in juxtaposition with the hostility in recent months, exhibits the varying facets of this complex relationship. Unfortunately, the confrontational nature of this relationship currently holds more weight. United States Vice President Mike Pence, also in attendance at the ceremonies, did not meet with Kim Yo-jong and Moon Jae-in and refused to stand for the North Korean national anthem. Additionally, Dr. Victor Cha, the front-runner to become American ambassador to South Korea was recently removed from consideration. Cha, an academic and former National Security Council member, was notified that his nomination would not proceed after he expressed concern about a potential preventative strike. While it could be argued that South Korea’s receptiveness to the North remains promising – even if the U.S. harbors other designs – this perspective ignores the degree to which South Korea is dependent upon the United States for security and therefore ignores the little agency it possesses. Furthermore, examining North Korea itself casts doubt on the sincerity of Kim Yo-jong’s apparent friendliness. The Kim regime is a brutal dictatorship that operates concentration camps for political dissidents and starves the majority of its citizens to fatten the ruling class. It is absurd to think that such a regime would willingly loosen its grip on power in order to advance its people’s “prosperity,” as she wrote.

Many pundits analyzing international politics question whether the United States is justified in its confrontational approach towards North Korea. It is reasonable to point out the United States’ apparent disinterest in countering various repressive dictatorships across the globe, and argue Kim Jong-un is merely acting in his self-interest by developing a nuclear deterrent. In fact, the United States has even propped up certain authoritarian regimes when it suited its interests. However, this argument misconstrues the American rationale for a bellicose strategy. It is not simply that Kim Jong-un has obtained nuclear weapons, it is that he has done so in complete defiance of the international community and international law. This sets a dangerous precedent, as allowing North Korea to continue to possess nuclear weapons grants flexibility for disruptive action and encourages other states to follow in their footsteps. For example, Iran could certainly feel emboldened to obtain nuclear weapons and possibly to proliferate technology to non-state terrorist groups. Thus, the United States is entirely justified in its agitation over nuclear proliferation to rogue states. Nuclear proliferation is potentially the greatest threat to mankind’s continued survival. An increasing number of states with nuclear capabilities raises the likelihood of a miscalculation setting off a nuclear exchange, leaving billions dead and large swaths of the planet uninhabitable. Although the odds of such an event are still small, the stakes are high enough that pursuing a course to reduce the probability of its occurrence is wise.  

This begs the question of why it falls to the United States to confront the Kim regime over its nuclear program. Some would assert that it is due to the morality of American exceptionalism but it is in the interest of this country and the majority of the world to contain North Korea, regardless of any sense of exceptionalism. A nuclear program poses a great danger both in its potential to create nuclear war as well as in its ability to grant a nuclear state the leeway to be undeterred by military threats from non-nuclear states. Despite South Korea’s economic and technological advantages, their possession of nuclear weapons hands North Korea the ability to militarily coerce the South. Given that South Korea is the 11th largest economy in the world by GDP and North Korea is 125th, the military disparity creates a strategic incentive for the North to forcefully take control of the South and its resources in order to further enrich the North’s leaders and ensure their economic survival. Given the Kim regime’s predisposition to violence, the unification they speak of is more likely to be compulsory than peaceful. Threatened with the loss of major cities to nuclear strikes, the leaders of South Korea would be helpless to prevent invasion. The majority of the world would have a keen interest in preventing this not only for the moral value of protecting a democracy from a dictator, but to prevent the crash in the international economic order that would certainly come about due to the loss of such a valuable trading partner. For all its flaws, the international order based on open societies and trade has brought about the greatest advancement in human progress the world has ever seen, bringing billions out of poverty and boosting literacy, life expectancy, and peace. Therefore, it is necessary for those who support the world’s continued progress to underwrite South Korea’s security by guaranteeing to counter any North Korean strike with a strike of their own. The United States just so happens to be the only nation both capable and willing to extend its reach across the globe to make such a promise. No other Western power has the naval and air capabilities to make this distant commitment. Powers such as China and Russia, who do possess such capabilities, have incentives to aid in the disruption of the international order.

However, there admittedly are limits to United States military action on the Korean peninsula. Although a retaliatory strike could prove necessary, it would be illogical and therefore unlikely, for the United States to order a preventative strike on North Korea. Now that North Korea can miniaturize nuclear warheads, it would be irrational for the United States to risk one of its own cities, not to mention millions of lives in Seoul and Tokyo, for the forced removal of the program. Wars have a tendency to rally a population behind their leaders, creating a slight chance of war if the Trump administration decides the domestic political gains would be worth it. Verbal exchanges between Kim Jong-un and Trump have contributed to the drumbeats of war, but the odds of such an event have been drastically played up by the media because sensationalism sells papers and generates clicks. However, no matter the tone of Trump’s remarks or tweets, verbal sparring of this kind is a part of deterrence. Mutually assured destruction does not function unless both sides demonstrate a willingness to use their weapons, and public threats are useful in creating pressure to drive bargained outcomes. The effectiveness of diplomatic pressure is massively undersold because it is not particularly exhilarating, but the United States strategy has consisted almost entirely of diplomacy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has embarked on a relentless campaign to isolate North Korea economically by coercing other countries to expel North Korean ambassadors, businesses, ships, and to prohibit bilateral meetings. The idea is to raise the cost of North Korea retaining its nuclear program until it is forced to negotiate. Coupled with sanctions, the program appears to be working. On the last day of the Winter Olympics, North Korean officials announced they were now open to further talks with the United States. This was an attempt to lessen sanctions announced a few days earlier, described by Trump as the “heaviest sanctions ever imposed.” United States’ officials have continued to insist that denuclearization be on the table for talks to proceed. It appears to have worked because South Korea recently indicated that Kim Jong-un expressed a willingness to discuss denuclearization with the United States.

However, the ultimate success of the U.S. State Department will not depend on the skill of American diplomats, but rather on the choices of their Chinese counterparts. China looms large over the Korean peninsula and so far has acted to ensure the balance of power remains against the United States by supporting the Kim regime. Chinese ships were recently found to have been violating international sanctions by trafficking supplies to North Korea. The potential of Chinese counter-intervention may prove a deterrent to any kind of United States military action. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been taking an authoritarian turn as of late by abolishing presidential term limits, and it is unlikely he would easily allow such a blatant challenge to his regional dominance. At the same time, it is unclear what lengths China would go to protect North Korea and it is possible it could be convinced that withdrawing support is in its national interest. To solve the diplomatic puzzle, the United States could propose granting nuclear technology to South Korea and Japan as a counterweight to North Korea. China would certainly oppose allowing two nuclear powers in its backyard to constrain its regional endeavours. It may decide that pushing for a removal of the North Korean nuclear program is a better alternative, especially if coupled with a major United States concession to partially roll back its military presence in the region. North Korea would not survive long without China’s support, as 85 percent of North Korea’s trade is with China and the Kim regime would have little recourse. A diplomatic proposal with similar tenets is the most likely peaceful path to removing North Korea’s nuclear capability, but China is the key element in its success.

Despite inflammatory posturing, the standoff between the United States and North Korea is unlikely to end in violence. The State Department’s strategy of relentless diplomatic pressure, while not flashy enough to grab headlines, is capable of forcing a resolution. If it does, the harmony of the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony may prove prescient after all.

Leave a Reply