Winter Olympics thaw: North-South Korean talks could alter dangerous course, experts say

    South Korean Unification Minster Cho Myoung-gyon speaks during a press conference at the government complex in Seoul, South Korea, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. Cho on Tuesday offered high-level talks with rival North Korea meant to find ways to cooperate on the Winter Olympics set to begin in the South next month. The banner showing the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics slogan reads: "Passion. Connected." (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

    Visitors from around the world are already starting to arrive in South Korea for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The games begin on February 9 and continue with the Paralympic Games through March 18, marking a high-stakes nearly three month period on the Korean Peninsula.

    At issue is whether North and South Korea will use the Olympics and the long tradition of sports diplomacy as grounds to build a more productive dialogue that could ease the rising tensions in the region, or whether that opportunity will be lost.

    During a new year's address, Kim Jong-Un raised the possibility of sending a delegation to the Winter Games and was open to immediately discussing the matter with South Korea. "We are ready to take various steps, including the dispatch of the delegation" to the February games, Kim said, according to a transcript from South Korea's Yonhap News Agency. "To this end, the two Koreas can immediately meet."

    South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been advocating for improved inter-Korean relations, called the remarks "groundbreaking." He welcomed the possibility of meeting on January 9 and holding the first government-level dialogue between the two nations since December 2015.

    "I view chairman Kim Jong-Un's remarks about sending a North Korean delegation to the PyeongChang Olympics and holding government-level dialogue as a response to our proposal to turn the Pyeongchang Olympic Games into a groundbreaking chance to improve South-North relations and establish peace," Moon said in a Tuesday Cabinet meeting.

    The South Korean president further stressed that improved relations on the Korean Peninsula must also be aimed at "the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue at the same time."

    The nuclear threat from North Korea looms large over the Olympics. Last year, the regime conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear weapons test and successfully launched three intercontinental ballistic missiles.

    In the same address where Kim Jong-Un agreed to send a delegation to Seoul, the leader boasted that the North's nuclear weapons program is "complete," that he has "a nuclear button" always on his desk and the whole of the U.S. mainland within reach of his missiles.

    Even with recent North Korean provocations fresh in mind, experts see a rare opportunity unfolding in the coming months around the Winter Olympics and North Korea's participation in the games.

    "The Olympics and sport should transcend conflict, especially geopolitical conflict," said Dr. Daniel Kelly, Georgetown University professor of sports industry management. "I think this has been seen by the South Korea president as an opportunity to open doors for conversations between North and South Korea. Will it end all of the years of conflict? I doubt it. But it's a conversation that needs to happen. And the Olympics offer a very stable environment to begin those conversations."

    So far only two North Korean female figure skaters have qualified for the Winter Games. A number of other athletes did not register in time. Earlier this year, President Moon proposed a unified Korean hockey team. Kim rejected the proposal in September, saying the North Korean athletes did not have enough time to prepare.

    Kelly stressed that South Korea has "gone above and beyond" in their overtures to the North. But he also acknowledged that inviting Pyongyang to participate in the games is a security failsafe and an attempt to avoid a repeat of the 1988 Summer Olympics, the last games hosted in South Korea.

    "If you look back on history, if you have North Korean athletes at the games or representatives from North Korea, that opens the door for there to be peace, at least during the games," Kelly said. Leading up to the 1988 games, members of the International Olympics Committee attempted to broker a deal where the South and North co-hosted the games, but the talks broke down and eventually resulted in the North boycotting the event.

    In November 1987, North Korean operatives planted a bomb on Korean Airlines Flight 858 in an attempt to scare off participants in the upcoming Olympic Games and killed all 115 passengers onboard.

    "I just think history repeats itself," Kelly said, explaining South Korea's motivation for securing North Korean participation in the games "as a safety measure." North Korea has regularly participated in recent Olympics, with the exception of the 2010 games.

    As the North and South tenuously prepare for a January 9 dialogue on Pyongyang's participation in the Olympic games, the United States is playing a complicating role.

    On Tuesday, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley made it clear that the United States is not taking the dialogue seriously.

    "We won't take any of the talks seriously if they don't do something to ban all nuclear weapons in North Korea," Haley said. "We don't think we need a band-aid and we don't think we need to smile and take a picture. We think we need to have them stop nuclear weapons."

    Haley further stated that "North Korea can talk with anyone they want but the U.S. is not going to recognize it or acknowledge it until they agree to ban the nuclear that they have."

    The statement overshadowed President Trump's earlier message on Twitter. Referring to the North Korean leader, Trump tweeted, "Rocket man now wants to talk to South Korea for first time. Perhaps that is good news, perhaps not - we will see!"

    According to Jenny Town, managing producer for 38 North and assistant director for the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, even preliminary government-level talks could create an option for more productive dialogue in the future.

    "Whether it starts with the Olympics, I think this is a window of opportunity to see how that can play out and if that can translate into a different dynamic in the beginning of the year," Town said.

    "At at this point in time, there is a lot of concern in the region that the U.S. is overly eager to take military action that could lead to war," she explained, pointing to the heated rhetoric emerging from President Trump and his administration.

    In recent months, members of the Trump administration have spoken about "preventive war," dismissed the idea of deterring a nuclear North Korea and expressed a willingness to use military force to "totally destroy" the North in order to protect itself and allies.

    In that context, Town stressed that "anything that can be done now to de-escalate the situation and start to put us on a more productive path is a welcome move."

    According to Michael Mazarr, East Asian security analyst and political scientist at the RAND Corporation, the nature of U.S. strategy on the Korean Peninsula will likely unfold in the next six to twelve months and much will depend on North Korea's behavior during the Winter Games. During that time, he believes the U.S. leadership will make a decision whether to take preemptive military action against North Korea's nuclear program, as members of the Trump administration have alluded to, or whether to adopt a longer-term strategy to contain and deter the regime.

    "If North Korea is smart in this process, over the next six months it's going to make that decision as hard as possible for the United States," Mazarr noted. "The more provocative it acts, the more backing it gives the United States to take bold and decisive action of its own. The more it appears to be engaging in a peacemaking process with South Korea, the harder it is going be for the United States to make that choice."

    Much is hinging on the upcoming inter-Korean talks, including whether the South will postpone yet-to-be-planned military exercises with the United States. The North has been seeking a pause in the military drills and the South Korean government has suggested it is open to the idea, especially as a means to prevent unwanted provocations ahead of the Olympics.

    Last month, Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters that while the United States was not planning to "pause" its pending military exercises in Southeast Asia, the drills could be adjusted by the host government, South Korea, for a number of reasons, including political reasons.

    A politically motivated decision by South Korea to postpone military drills with the United States could be interpreted as driving a wedge in the alliance, Mazarr said. But the bigger issue is whether the North and South Korea take advantage of the coming three months to engage in more formal talks that go beyond Pyongyang's athletes appearing at the Winter Games.

    Setting the stage of inter-Korean talks will inevitably shape the U.S. calculus as it considers a diplomatic path forward or a military option, Mazarr emphasized. "North Korea can make all of this happen if it wants to, if it is just clever and restrained in how it approaches the next six months."

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