When the Koreas talk, the subject is irrelevant
After a two-year hiatus that saw the Korean Peninsula come perilously close to the brink of war – and possibly a nuclear war – the South and North are at last poised to return to the bargaining table. For the first time in those two years, the two sides have reopened lines of communication and dispatched high-level delegations to the demilitarised zone on their shared border.
The main point of the discussion is whether North Korean athletes will participate in next month’s Winter Olympics, which the South is hosting. But it’s obvious to all that the talks have far greater significance for both nations, for the Asia-Pacific region, and for the world. The delegates might be chatting about skiing and bobsleds, but they’ll be thinking the whole while about the nuclear stand-off between Washington and Pyongyang.
Nerves have yet to calm since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un warned in his annual New Year address that he has a nuclear button “on my desk at all times” and US President Donald Trump responded with typical bluster, tweeting that his button was “much bigger and more powerful”.
Fortunately for all of us, while Trump was prattling on about a “free world united against evil North Korea”, Pyongyang extended an olive branch to Seoul. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has always supported dialogue with the North, called the gesture “an epoch-making opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations and establish peace”.
Trump needs to understand that this issue is not about him, and nor is it solely about Americans’ security. It is also about the fate of one of the world’s most reclusive regimes, whose leader, derided as “crazy fat kid” by cruel American lawmakers, has just schooled the leader of the free world.
Most observers agree that Kim reaching out to the South is a strategy aimed at changing the narrative now that he possesses nuclear weapons and might be able to deliver them to the continental United States. If this is not the case, Kim could get back to his tests and threats once the Olympics are over and South Korea and the US resume their regular military exercises.
But, for the time being at least, Kim has given the world some breathing space and the hope of a chance to discuss rationally the nuclear problem. If the subject of these talks is just sports, well, at least the Koreans are talking, and sports diplomacy has been useful on more than one occasion in the past.
Trump, meanwhile, needs to exercise more restraint and heed his advisers. Mintaro Oba, who worked in Barack Obama’s State Department on North Korean issues, has counselled caution over expectations. He cited “North Korea’s long history of effectively using these talks to drive a wedge between South Korea and its partners, and to push for concessions Seoul couldn’t possibly accept”.
Trump, of course, doesn’t understand the concept of caution and is a poor listener. But Washington should let the Koreans harvest the low-hanging fruit and watch how the situation evolves. The Olympics, generally noble and neutral, afford a good starting point because no one need be forced to make concessions.
We could do far worse than sitting back and enjoying the games. For a brief time, even when they’re competing for medals, the Koreans of the North and the South will seem like one people.
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