Why has North Korea suddenly decided to be nice?

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After months of increasing tension, North Korea decided Wednesday to reopen a long-suspended hotline used for communicating with the South — potentially marking a thaw that could lead to Pyongyang sending a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics, due to be held next month in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The presence of North Korean officials and athletes at the games may calm jitters about potential missile tests or worse occurring during the events, which will be held just 50 miles from the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula.

There’d also be a symbolic element to North Korea’s participation in the games. Pyongyang has long used sporting achievements at international events to bolster its reputation abroad.

Both Koreas also have used Olympic events to make gestures toward reconciliation, even marching together under a shared flag at a number of events.

North Korea’s history at the Olympics

North Korean Judo coach Pak Jung Chul, left, and South Korean basketball player Chung Eun-Sun carry a flag representing a united Korea into Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Sydney on Sept. 15, 2000. (Rusty Kennedy/AP)

Despite Graham’s concerns, North Korea has a long history at the Olympics. Pyongyang has sent athletes to every Summer Olympics since 1972, except for two it boycotted — the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul.

The country has won 54 medals at Summer Olympics, including 16 gold medals, with weightlifting and wrestling its most successful sports. Given the country’s small size and small gross domestic product, its performance has been relatively successful.

Part of North Korea’s success in the games no doubt comes from sheer political will. Successful athletes often enjoy well-funded facilities and relatively luxurious lifestyles, compared with their peers, North Korea analyst Christopher Green told WorldViews last year, although the risk of defection means that they often lead cloistered lives while in the Olympic Village.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a mountainous country with cold winters, North Korea has performed far worse in Winter Olympics, gaining only three medals total despite competing in eight games since 1964. The only North Korean athletes to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are two figure skaters, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik.

North Korea’s weapons programmes are expensive, and the country may have determined that better relations with South Korea could provide a needed boost to its economy.

“Based on Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day speech, it appears that North Korea may be ready to turn greater attention towards its economy. International sanctions have likely prevented the North Koreans from expanding its economy.

Talks with South Korea and participation in the Olympics may provide a potential opening to bring some sanctions relief for North Korea,” said Andrew Yeo, an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

Also on Tuesday, the two sides agreed to hold talks based on calming military tensions, raising the possibility that this could be the beginning of a phase of greater interchange.

Both sides have incentives to keep cooperation going beyond the Olympics, argues Mason Richey, an associate professor of politics in the Graduate School of International and Area Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

“The agreement to hold military talks shows that South Korea is trying to keep the momentum going forward,” Richey said.

As for North Korea, Richey said, “Every bit of this conversation on the Olympics that allows them to push for concessions, or sanctions relief, or possibly drive a wedge between South Korea and the US, is a good thing for them”.

Washington is South Korea’s closest partner and North Korea’s adversary. The US government has welcomed these talks and, for Seoul, continued coordination with Washington could be key for sustained progress in dealing with North Korea.

“This is not about major breakthroughs on the security front, but baby steps in reducing tension overall. North Korea policy has been plagued by coordination problems among involved countries, so the United States and South Korea, in particular, should remain in close contact moving ahead,” said Naoko Aoki, an adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.

Seoul and Pyongyang still need to iron out details such as how the North Korean delegation would travel to the South, where their lodging would be and other matters. It is possible that disagreement over such points could scuttle Tuesday’s agreement.

There is also the possibility that the rapprochement could last through the Olympics, then fizzle in the spring when South Korea and the US hold annual military exercises.

As a gesture meant to bring down tensions during the Olympics, South Korea and the US agreed to delay some the drills until after the games.

“The US and South Korea have only postponed rather than cancelled their springtime annual exercises so that the Olympics and Paralympics can pass smoothly.

Once the exercises get under way, North Korea is likely to be angered,” said Yoel Sano, Head of Global Political and Security Risk, for BMI Research.

There are analysts who argue that negotiations with North Korea are limited in what they can accomplish, as cooperation with outside powers runs counter to the country’s ideology, and that Pyongyang will not budge from its goal of becoming the nuclear-armed, single ruler of the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea expert Brian Myers wrote in a recent book, “One cannot reason with a dictator whose legitimacy derives from a pose of implacable hostility”.

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