Commentary / World

South Korea's Olympic gambit traps both Kim and Trump

by Peter Apps

Reuters

North Korea’s Olympic athletes didn’t bring home any medals, but their participation may have earned the peninsula something more substantial. By taking part so visibly alongside South Korea, Pyongyang has been able to present itself as a credible global and regional power in a way that has eluded North Korean leaders since the war that divided the peninsula. The real strategic winner, however, is the South Korean government, which has shrewdly used the games to reshape the diplomatic landscape.

For all the talk of reconciliation, neither North nor South Korea has much appetite for the compromises — or the catastrophic war — that reunification would take. What both countries have been desperate to do, however, is to blunt the potential threat of a major unilateral U.S. strike on Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities.

The potential for renewed dialogue puts Washington in a difficult position. This year, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration had intended to ramp up military pressure on Pyongyang, reinforcing the Kim regime’s fears that further nuclear progress might lead to U.S. action. The Olympic rapprochement with the South, however, has compelled Washington to abort some of its plans.

Distrust clearly remains high. It was reported that North Korea canceled a meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence after he used his trip to condemn Kim’s nuclear ambitions and to pledge further sanctions. The fact that a meeting was even considered, however, was arguably a breakthrough in its own right.

It would be a mistake to view the Olympic rapprochement as a true game changer on the peninsula; the fundamental drivers of the conflict have not gone away. What the Pyeongchang Games have offered, however, is a break from the cycle of ever-rising escalation. Where that will ultimately lead remains far from clear. But it does make an imminent war somewhat less likely.

If the United States was to strike now, while communication between North and South is improving, it might look like an unjustified aggressor, risking regional disaster just as peace seemed possible.

Kim, however, must also face some tough decisions. He clearly wishes to continue his nuclear program, so as to remove all doubt about North Korea’s ability to deliver nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles to the U.S. mainland; most analysts agree that he views this capacity as vital to protecting his power and deterring Iraq-style “regime change.”

But building ever more powerful missiles and warheads would require Kim to resume his highly visible test program. Doing so would likely torpedo the regional dialogue, and could even be viewed as justification for a limited U.S. strike.

Kim’s current quandary nicely suits South Korea’s purposes. President Moon Jae-in’s government has little genuine affection for the brutal Kim dynasty, and if there were a way of ousting it without disaster, it would probably take it. In the absence of such options, however, it is trying to manage the situation as best it can.

Even if Kim resumes his tests and tensions with the U.S. rise again after the Winter Games, the temporary detente will still be seen as a success. Had Pyongyang been unable to take part, there were genuine concerns the North might try to disrupt the Olympics, perhaps through cyber or guerrilla attacks. If nothing else, Kim would probably have staged high-profile missile, and perhaps even warhead, tests simultaneously, wrecking any Olympic spirit and dominating news coverage.

The games have provided the best hope in several years that all sides will step back from what had been an ongoing cycle of escalation. Unfortunately, this progress may prove temporary.

Kim may have successfully used the games to increase his regime’s credibility, in particular by sending his sister as a powerful political proxy. But he may conclude that this achievement was equally a result of his recent saber-rattling, and of having exceeding outsiders’ expectations for his nuclear progress.

Kim’s regime still faces ongoing internal and external danger. There remains the medium to long-term risk that domestic discontent could bring it down.

The risk of U.S.-led military action has not gone away either. Despite the relative harmony of the Olympics, many in Washington suspect that Trump and other top administration officials — particularly National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster — still favor military action. Kim may conclude that advancing his weapons program remains the best way to safeguard his long-term rule.

The Winter Olympics have opened a slim but real chance that further North Korean tests and the continued rise in tensions can be averted — or at the very least, slowed. It’s not exactly “peace in our time” — not least because neither side has made any real concessions. But it’s not a terrible outcome for a sports competition that could easily have become another flash point.

Peter Apps is Reuters’ global affairs columnist.