WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — The Olympics and Paralympics will soon come to an end and with the conclusion of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, the calm that has enveloped the Korean Peninsula may also recede.
The Winter Games have provided a reprise after a year of provocative nuclear and missile tests by North Korea, escalating international pressure and threats of military intervention by the United States.
In the leadup to the Pyeongchang Winter Games, North Korea agreed to send a delegation of athletes across the border, a gesture of good faith that opened up high-level government talks between the North and South. As the inter-Korean talks progressed, Seoul agreed to postpone regional military exercises with the United States with no set date for resuming the drills.
So far, none of North Korea's athletes have secured a medal, but the regime's main goal was not to win in the snow or on the ice, but to succeed in waging an effective "charm offensive."
"What we are seeing at the Olympics is a carefully tailored propaganda mission from Kim Jong Un to gain credibility with the international community," a State Department official told Sinclair Broadcast Group. The cheer squads and high-level delegations do not change the regime’s dismal human rights record or put an to its illegal ballistic missile and weapons of mass destruction programs, the official added.
Mintaro Oba, a former Korea Desk official at the State Department and current speechwriter, explained that North Korea's performance at the Olympics is typical of their behavior in the past. "The North Koreans are masters at manipulating public opinion by switching between provoking tensions and launching charm offenses," said Oba.
Pyongyang's primary mission in attending the Olympics has been to create a positive atmosphere around the inter-Korea talks in order to extract concessions from Seoul on sanctions, military exercises or other sensitive areas, that will inevitably put a strain on relations between Seoul and Washington.
"What North Korea is hoping to do with this charm offensive is to drive that wedge between the United States and South Korea," Oba explained. "That's pretty much the North Korean playbook."
The effort to divide the U.S.-ROK alliance has been met with resistance on both sides. Trump administration officials have repeatedlty assured South Korea of its "ironclad" commitment to the alliance, and South Korea has reciprocated the pledge.
Both governments are "clear-eyed" about North Korea's tactics, Oba said, and while the allies disagree on how to manage the regime, they have not been "duped."
The same can't be said of some in the United States who fawned over what seemed to be an affable, engaged North Korea.
NBC anchor Lester Hold was accused of filming "propaganda" and "carrying water" for the dictatorial regime when he recorded a segment from a "modern ski resort" in North Korea, apparently without realizing that the scene in the well-known ghost town was staged.
A handful of U.S. media outlets got played by the charm offensive waged by Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, who made a historic trip across the border. Outlets gushed about the freckled, smiling Kim Yo Jong who sat next to South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the opening ceremony and was mere feet away from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.
Some networks described Ms. Kim as "stealing the show" and criticized Pence for not interacting with the regime’s nominal head of state and not standing when North and South Korean athletes marched together under a unified Korean flag.
After returning from the Olympics, Pence explained in an interview with Axios, "I didn’t avoid her but I did ignore her. I didn't believe it was proper for the United States of America to give any attention in that form to someone who is not merely the sister of a dictator but the leader of a propaganda unit." The United States has had sanctions on Kim for years, including for human rights abuses related to her control over state media and propaganda to deny free thought to the public.
Kim Yo Jong was able to secure a meeting with President Moon in Seoul, marking the first time since the end of the Korean War that a member of the Kim dynasty visited the South. The meeting was largely seen as a breakthrough towards gradually improved relations between the North and South and concluded with Kim Yo Jong inviting President Moon to a summit in Pyongyang.
Over the weekend, Moon said he is hopeful about the renewed engagement with the North, adding it is premature to discuss such a meeting. Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the Pyeongchang Games, Moon suggested that the ultimate path forward will be determined by the United States.
"We are hoping that the ongoing talks between the South and North will lead to talks between the United States and North Korea and eventually to [North Korean] denuclearization dialogue," Moon said, noting that "a consensus is starting to build that there’s also a need for talks between the United States and North Korea."
Whether the Olympics rapprochement will lead to broader talks that include the United States is yet to be seen. Much of that will depend on how long the North Koreans can put on the charm and how much Moon Jae-in is willing to concede to reduce tensions on the peninsula.
In the meantime, some Korean experts have warned that Kim Jong Un's apparent openness to diplomacy is simply a stalling tactic. That while engaging in talks with the South and refraining from new missile or nuclear tests, the regime is continuing to advance its nuclear program and other military programs.
After months of U.S. and international sanctions, North Korea has seen decreases in its military budget. As a result, the State Department advised that North Korea will turn to lower-cost state-sponsored criminal activities, like cyber-attacks, espionage and other malicious cyber activities. Those activities "pose a risk to critical infrastructure in countries around the world and to the global economy."
Recently, the cybersecurity firm FireEye published a report warning that a lesser-known North Korean cyber actor, APT37, had developed sophisticated technical capabilities and was expanding its scope of activity from targeting South Korean interests to Japan, Vietnam and the Middle East.
"They're gathering intelligence for the North Korean regime," explained Benjamin Read, cyber espionage analyst at FireEye. "They're targeting everything from organizations that work with North Korean defectors to organizations that work on unification issues, to South Korean businesses, manufacturers, telecoms" as well as aerospace and defense firms, media, entertainment and government assets.
The group is primarily focused on espionage, but Read advised they have developed the capability to carry out a disruptive attack. "We've never seen them employ it," he said, adding, "It's definitely something that organizations that touch North Korea issues should be aware of."
If the ongoing inter-Korean exchange continues beyond the Olympics, there is a lot of potential for North Korea to exploit the differences between President Moon and President Donald Trump, who has been deeply skeptical of starting a dialogue with the Kim regime.
"I think North Korea's goal is to make proposals that expose that divide between Seoul and Washington," Oba said, noting North Korea is likely to use the inter-Korean talks to push for sanctions relief and a halt to joint military drills with the United States.
It is also possible that with close coordination between the two allies, the U.S. "maximum pressure" campaign and the South Korean policy of engagement could be complimentary.
Bruce Klingner, Northeast Asia researcher at the Heritage Foundation, noted, "We know [North Koreans] are trying to drive a wedge, but by knowing it we can take steps against it." He continued,"We can be hopeful, but there has to be very close coordination between Washington and Seoul."
Recent statements from the Trump administration have highlighted the possibility of continuing to ratchet up the pressure on North Korea, while keeping the door open to possible dialogue.
During his flight back from Pyeongchang, Vice President Pence signaled that the United States was ready to talk. "No pressure comes off until they are actually doing something that the alliance believes represents a meaningful step toward denuclearization," Pence told Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin. "So the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify. But if you want to talk, we’ll talk."
Before arriving in South Korea, Pence stopped in Tokyo where he announced the United States was preparing to "unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever."
The Pentagon has indicated that U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, paused during the Olympics, will resume sometime after the close of the Paralympic Games in mid-March. The drills have traditionally prompted a reaction from North Korea, but according to former CIA Korea analyst Sue Mi Terry, the allies may decide to hold a "scaled-down version" of the drills.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated the administration's two seemingly contradictory messages, an openness to diplomacy and willingness to resort to military action if necessary.
"My job as chief diplomat is the ensure that the North Koreans know we keep our channels open, I'm listening," he said in a "60 Minutes" interview. He continued, that he would pursue diplomacy "until that first bomb drops,"
On Monday, North Korea's state-run media published a story with an equally complex response to the Trump administration's carrots and sticks: "The DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] is fully ready for both dialogue and war."
The statement leaves a lot of room for interpretation as to how North Korea will play its hand in the aftermath of the Olympics.
More significant will be the closing ceremony of the Olympics, which will be attended by President Trump's daughter and White House adviser, Ivanka Trump.
Ivanka Trump is expected to discuss "issues of mutual interest" that may include a discussion of future U.S.-North Korean talks, according to South Korean media outlet Yonhap.