A Chinese Perspective

Trick or Treat: Will the Inter-Korean Rapprochement Last?

The Korean Peninsula never lacks for drama. While many people were wondering if a war would break out on the peninsula not many weeks ago, North and South Korea, the perennial competitors, have shaken hands and embraced a détente.

North Korea Makes a U-Turn

The year 2018 started with some good news. Kim Jong-un, the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) surprisingly struck a conciliatory tone toward South Korea in his New Year’s speech. Kim claimed, “We earnestly wish the Olympic Games a success. From this point of view, we are willing to dispatch our delegation and adopt other necessary measures.” Kim’s jaw-dropping offer caught many analysts off-guard.

The U-turn North Korea undertook in its policy toward South Korea could be attributed to three major factors. First, South Korea’s “moonlight” policy partially paid off. When President Moon Jae-in came to power, he made no secret of his desire to seek to improve inter-Korean relations. Even though North Korea had just tested its first-ever ICBM, Moon insisted that “my Government will consistently pursue nonpolitical exchange and cooperation projects by separating it from the political and military situation” in his high-profile speech at the Korber Foundation in Berlin on July 7, 2017. Moon suggested to North Korea to “let us make the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics an ‘Olympics of Peace’ with the participation of the North.”1 North Korea responded to Moon’s call with additional ICBM and nuclear tests, but, at the turn of 2018, it agreed to participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics.  

Second, the increasingly tough international sanctions against North Korea appeared to have a tangible impact on it. Since July 2006, the United Nations Security Council has passed 11 punitive resolutions against North Korea, ranging from military embargo to economic sanctions. Certainly, North Korea has acquired some immunity to international economic pressure as it has become used to living under various sanctions imposed by the United States, Japan and other countries, but it had never been sanctioned by the Security Council with such comprehensive and harsh measures. About ninety percent of North Korea’s exports are banned, and oil imports are greatly reduced to meet only minimum consumption needs in North Korea. Kim Jong-un acknowledged the “short supply in everything and manifold difficulties and ordeals owing to the despicable anti-DPRK moves of the enemies.”2 More importantly, the recent resolution 2397 clearly stipulates that “if the DPRK conducts a further nuclear test or a launch of a ballistic missile system capable of reaching intercontinental ranges or contributing to the development of a ballistic missile system capable of such ranges, then the Security Council will take action to restrict further the export to the DPRK of petroleum.” North Korea repeatedly insists that “there is no more fatal blunder than the miscalculation that the U.S. and its followers could check by already worn-out ‘sanctions’ the victorious advance of our people who have brilliantly accomplished the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power capable of coping with any nuclear war against the U.S.”3 Nonetheless, North Korea knows that its imports of petroleum will be further cut if it continues to test nuclear and long-range missiles, and that further reductions in oil imports definitely would increase its economic difficulties.  

Third, North Korean leaders’ intentions have paved the way to change. For years, North Korea had remained unchanged in its relentless pursuit of nuclear and missile weapons, but recently the stubbornness began to show some signs of change. After watching the second ICBM test on November 28, 2017, Kim Jong-un declared “now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.”4 The statement fueled speculation that North Korea may reduce or even temporarily pause nuclear and missile tests. If North Korea believes that it possesses real nuclear deterrence, it may not be necessary to test too frequently. Even though North Korea will not show any sign of weakness, as petroleum, the blood of the economy, remains severely insufficient, North Korea may try different ways to break its diplomatic isolation and remove economic sanctions.

The three factors collectively helped to bring about North Korea’s U-turn in its policy toward South Korea. None of them is dispensable.

Sports Diplomacy Initiated

Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s speech helped to initiate the sports diplomacy. The two Koreas moved fast to embrace an inter-Korean rapprochement that we have not seen since the Roh Moo-hyun-Kim Jong-il meeting in 2007. So far, they have held four official talks, including two high-level talks and two working-level talks, and agreed to hold more talks in every field aimed at improving inter-Korean relations. North Korea’s athletes, art troupe, and cheerleading squads all came to South Korea, and Kim Yong-nam, chairman of its National People’s Congress, and Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister and special envoy, attended the opening ceremony and met Moon.

For North Korea, the sports diplomacy has helped it to achieve a number of objectives:

  1. To project an improved image of a cooperative partner rather than a party wrecker for the Pyeongchang Olympic Games: the reduction of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and North Korea’s carefully-orchestrated propaganda campaign helped it to win some sympathy from both Korean and international audiences;
  1. To separate the South Korean government from South Korean conservatives: even though North Korea occasionally warned South Korea’s government and its leaders, it exercised tremendous restraint in doing so, while, instead, mainly focusing its verbal attacks on South Korean conservatives, which inevitably fueled political polarization in South Korea—some conservatives have already claimed that the South Korean government has made too many concessions and the Pyeongchang Olympic Games may become the Pyongyang Olympic Games;
  1. To isolate the United States by pulling South Korea, which has not always been on the same page with the Trump administration, to its side, and win time to stave off a possible military attack from the United States: the South Korean government has made clear that it opposes the use of force against North Korea, and any use of force against North Korea should require its consent in the first place, while North Korea repeatedly portrays itself as the spokesman of all Koreans and insists that “All Koreans should heighten their vigilance against the U.S. aggression and interference,” showing its intention to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States;
  1. To undermine ongoing sanctions imposed by the Security Council and South Korea, which are undermining North Korea’s survival: South Korea agreed to send its athletes to North Korea’s Masikryong Ski Resort for two days of joint training, helping to discredit a claim that the ski resort’s imported gondola from Austria and lynx snowmobiles breached luxury goods sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. South Korea also allowed North Korea to send the ship Mangyongbong-92, which carried the art troupe, to the port of Mukho—according to the May 24 measures imposed by the South Korean government in 2010, North Korean ships are prohibited from sailing in South Korean waters, and Mangyongbong-92 was exempted from those measures. North Korea asked South Korea to supply fuel to the Mangyongbong-92, but quickly dropped the request as South Korea could not do so under the ongoing sanctions. Also, North Korea included in its high-level delegation Cheo Hwi, the chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission who has been on the UN sanctions blacklist since June 2, 2017, for whom the South Korean government secured a sanctions exemption to facilitate his visit. With all these exemptions, North Korea tested the limits of the ongoing sanctions and may find out that the sanctions are not ironclad.

In short, North Korea has gained a lot but paid little price in its sports diplomacy. Even if the inter-Korean rapprochement comes to a sudden end, North Korea has little to lose.

For South Korea, its own sports diplomacy has also produced something it really wanted. First of all, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, the number one priority of Moon’s government that was once overshadowed by possible military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, is guaranteed to be friendly, peaceful, and successful. Moon’s domestic position, handicapped by the ruling party’s minority in parliament, is strengthened. Second, by improving relations with North Korea, South Korea put itself in a strong position in Northeast Asia. On the one hand, it is trying to transform its image from North Korea’s perennial competitor to an honest broker between North Korea and the United States with an aim to turn inter-Korean rapprochement into North Korea-US talks. So far, South Korea has seized the initiative in the South Korea-North Korea-US triangle by making sure that Pyongyang’s road to Washington goes through Seoul. In addition, South Korea has established direct contacts with North Korea; even though the contacts are still fragile, it can reduce its reliance on other countries to reach out to its northern neighbor, thus, improving its position in Northeast Asia geopolitics.

Yet, the situation could be problematic, since it is necessary for South Korea to make concessions to North Korea in order to keep the inter-Korean rapprochement going, they may widen the policy divergence with the United States, which is tightening its sanctions against North Korea, and provide opposition parties with more ammunition.

Trick or Treat?

South Korea initiated the inter-Korean rapprochement, but North Korea determines how far the rapprochement can go. So far, the rapprochement has produced a number of positive results: North Korea’s athletes are competing in the Olympic Games, North Korea’s art troupe and cheerleading squad became national and international sensations, suspended inter-Korean communications and high-level talks were restored, and Kim Yo-jong orally invited Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang on behalf of Kim Jong-un. Kim expressed his willingness to meet Moon at the earliest date possible. Moon replied: “Let us make it happen by creating the necessary conditions in the future.”5    

Moon’s cautious response demonstrates that the inter-Korean rapprochement has its limitations even as the rapprochement is gaining momentum. First, South Korea’s further actions are restrained by three basic factors: 1) the US attitude has been fairly negative toward the rapprochement—it could allow some exemptions to the sanctions against North Korea, but cannot give too many and too big concessions as long as North Korea continues to avoid nuclear talks; 2) the rapprochement is unfolding under the deep-seated suspicion of Korean conservatives—Moon cannot move fast or he will expose himself to attack from domestic competitors; 3) the failure of the Sunshine Policy constitutes a historical burden for Moon, who has a very close personal connection to the policy’s initiator Roh Moo-hyun—Moon cannot allow his “moonlight” policy to repeat the previous failure.

Conceivably, the two Koreas may hold more talks to address other prominent issues, such as family reunions, resumption of tourism to Mt. Kumgang, and reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Even though the two have refrained from touching on North Korean nuclear and missile issues, they do not have the luxury of time to work out solutions to problems gradually.

The inter-Korean rapprochement’s future remains uncertain beneath the surface of unity and friendship presented by the two Koreas in the opening ceremony of the Olympics lurk some immediate challenges. First, the two have been locked in perennial confrontation, their age-old enmity and mistrust cannot be rooted out overnight. Second, the United States promises to adopt the toughest and most aggressive sanctions against North Korea very soon and may trigger a strong reaction from North Korea. Third, the postponed ROK-US joint military exercises continue to be a time bomb and may explode soon in the wake of the Olympics. In order to cope with these challenges, South Korea should show its super diplomatic skill, and at the same time, North Korea needs to do something big.   

South Korea is doing its best to pull North Korea and the United States together, but so far its efforts are not working. The future of the inter-Korean rapprochement to large extent will hinge on North Korea’s real intentions. If the U-turn in its policy toward South Korea is a trick, aimed at extracting short-term gains from South Korea, then the rapprochement will come to a quick end. If it is a treat, aimed at putting the rapprochement on a sustainable and solid base, North Korea should realize that a few pieces of candy are not enough to keep the rapprochement going for long. It cannot sidestep the nuclear and missile issues when it deals with South Korea and South Korea’s ally the United States.

We all insist that denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula should not be left out in the inter-Korean talks, but we rarely discuss how the international community should reciprocate if North Korea agrees to put its nuclear and missile programs on the table. South Korea should send an envoy to Pyongyang and Washington to find common ground between North Korea and the United States. Every stakeholder should act quickly, because even as we immerse ourselves in the unmistakable joy of the Olympics, a time bomb on the Korean Peninsula keeps ticking.

1. “Full Text of Moon’s Speech at the Korber Foundation,” The Korea Herald, July 7, 2017, http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20170707000032

2. “Kim Jong Un Makes Opening Address at 5th Conference of Cell Chairpersons of WPK,” Rodong Sinmum, December 22, 2017, http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2017-12-22-0001

3. “Statement of DPRK Foreign Ministry Spokesman,” KCNA, December 24, 2017.

4. “DPRK Gov’t Statement on Successful Test-fire of New-Type ICBM,” Rodong Sinmum, November 29, 2017, http://www.rodong.rep.kp/en/index.php?strPageID=SF01_02_01&newsID=2017-11-29-0002

5. “N. Korean leader proposes inter-Korean summit with Moon,” Yonhap, February 10, 2018, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2018/02/10/0301000000AEN20180210003753315.html