Between coverage of figure skating, snowboarding and skiing, North Korea has been at the center of attention during the Winter Olympics. The hermit country marched under a neutral flag of a unified Korea with its neighbor to the South during the Opening Ceremonies, and has maintained strong visibility in the news media since.
North Korea’s participation in the Olympics is the product of negotiations with South Korean officials in January. It elected to send several qualified athletes and a large performance troupe with encouragement from the International Olympic Committee.
The cheer squad, which consists of over 200 young women who chanted and danced in unison, repeating things like “go get it” and “nice to meet you” at a women’s hockey match against Switzerland, has captivated the international audience. But despite the fanfare, the true focus of the North’s participation in the Games is what it may signify about the relations between the two Koreas.
The actions of officials at the Games appear to be part of a diplomatic effort to strengthen ties between the two Korean states, which are still officially at war. Months prior to the 1988 Olympics, North Korea bombed a South Korean plane, killing 115, when a bid to host part of the Games in the North was rejected. Thirty years later, North Korea is still seen as an isolated, belligerent state. And yet, the countries have come together to create a joint women’s hockey team and wave the flag of a unified Korean Peninsula. Although President Moon Jae-in and many South Koreans support increased dialogue with the North, only four out of 10 South Koreans were happy about marching under a shared flag.
“North Korea is feeling increasingly isolated and would like to have some positive momentum in its relations with South Korea and other parts of the world, if it can get it,” said political science professor William Hurst.
Mike Pence served as the American envoy to the games and his movements in relation to the Korean leaders have been scrutinized by analysts. When the unified Korean team entered the stadium during the Opening Ceremonies, he refused to stand. At a dinner and reception, Pence showed up late, stayed only a few minutes and disturbed the careful seating arrangements with his absence. In doing so, he missed the dessert – a cut-out of the Korean peninsula with a piece of chocolate barbed wire which was meant to dissolve when hot white chocolate was poured over it.
“The current administration of the U.S. is not very deeply informed and not thinking very carefully about foreign policy in general, or about the situation in Korea,” Hurst said. “I think Pence looked flat-footed. He looked foolish. It makes the U.S. look petty rather than magnanimous. It gave North Korea a public relations win in the eyes of the rest of the world, in a very public way.”
Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong, was sent as a state official, and was hailed by some as “winner of the diplomatic gold” despite having made no public remarks. Much of the Western media is enamored by her performance, especially in comparison to Pence’s.
In fact, she was tasked with conveying Kim Jong-un’s invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to hold a joint summit meeting. Moon accepted, and although it is not yet apparent how the meeting will proceed or what the lasting impact will be, it is clear that the two leaders are open to discussion and closer relations.
But unlike past meetings of the countries, the U.S. will not likely be a key figure in the discussions.
“It isolates the United States from the interaction, which is exactly what North Korea wants,” Hurst said. “And the current government of South Korea is probably not altogether upset about having this administration from the U.S., at least partially, sidelined, because Trump’s moves have not been helpful.”
The participation of the U.S. and China have, in the past, been necessary to solidify lasting peace deals. As the Koreas edge out the Trump administration, however, it is unclear what the outcome of this summit will be.
“The old framework of multi-party talks may be pushed to the side,” Hurst said. “It seems hard to imagine that the two areas could come to a final, lasting, comprehensive peace agreement without the U.S. or china. But at the same time, they may be able to make a lot of diplomatic progress they couldn’t otherwise make with those powers at the table.”
The Olympics is an event meant to allow the international community to take a break from politicking in favor of unity and peace. And yet, although the lasting impact of North Korea’s actions over these two weeks is yet to be seen, it is clear that its leaders very much have politics in mind.