The Olympics today are the modern-day version of what started over 2,700 years ago in Olympia, Greece. Back then, the religious festival—in honor of Zeus, king of the gods—would enact the Olympic Truce so that athletes could travel from their cities to the games in safety. The truce meant that for the duration of the competition city states would not attach each other. In 1993 the United Nations revived the truce through Resolution 48/11 and through the UN Millennium Declaration. In short, it’s common knowledge and global etiquette: the Olympics is a time to take a break from war games in favor of sportsmanship and peace, however short-lived that may be.
It is perhaps in that spirit that North Korea extended a rare olive branch to South Korea through the leader’s New Year’s Day speech. Deviating from his normally belligerent rhetoric, Kim Jong Un argued that “North and South must work together to alleviate the tensions and work together as a people of the same heritage to find peace and stability…” Sure enough, the North Korean delegation arrived at the 2018 Winter Games held in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Seoul has responded positively to Kim’s statements. Park Soo-hyun, a South Korean presidential spokesman expressed that Seoul is “[willing] to engage in a dialogue with North Korea at any time, in any place and in any format, as long as both sides can discuss restoring their relations and peace on the Korean Peninsula”. This exchange could mark a significant warming of North and South Korean relations.
The opening of a dialogue between North and South Korea will be the first since South Korea’s president, Moo Jae-In, took office on May 10, 2017. It may also indicate a more long-term shift in what have been traditionally cool or nonexistent relations between North and South Korea.
The inclusion of a North Korean delegation at the PeyongChang Olympic Games eases some tension over North Korean machinations during the Winter Games. With a North Korean delegation competing in the Winter Games it is unlikely that Pyongyang will engage in any nuclear tests, military drills, or terrorist strikes to disrupt the Games. On this point Park expressed that “If the PyeongChang Olympics can be successfully held as peace Olympics, it will make contributions to the peace and harmony of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia, as well as to the world…”
Kim Jong-Un’s usual rhetoric was present, however, in his remarks about President Trump and the United States. Kim warned that: “The entire mainland of the U.S. is within the range of [North Korean] nuclear weapons and the nuclear button is always on the desk of [Kim’s] office.” These remarks are par for the course for the tense nuclear rhetoric between the United States and North Korea over the last year.
President Trump replied in his usual fashion, claiming that “[He] too has a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than [Kim’s], and [his] Button works.” Despite his rhetoric, however, President Trump has agreed to postpone joint South Korean-U.S. military exercises scheduled during the 2018 Winter Games in an attempt to foster the opening of relations between North and South Korea. However, President Trump’s concession is unlikely to warm up relations between the United States and North Korea in the near future.
It is possible that President Trump’s aggressive nuclear rhetoric will alienate South Korea, which has becoming increasingly concerned over the nuclear tension between North Korea and the United States. Moreover, the lull of tensions between North and South Korea could anger hard-liners within the Trump administration that believe that a lull in tensions will lead to an easing of sanctions against North Korea. Together, these developments may suggest a cooling of relations between South Korea and the United States.
On another note, China’s growing power in Eastern Asia will increase its desire and capability to reshape the region to better conform to its interests. The opening of a chasm between Seoul and Washington could create an opportunity for China to shut the door on the U.S. influence in Eastern Europe, thereby increasing its own regional influence. If Washington continues to alienate South Korea while South Korea is courted by China and North Korea, the United States risks losing access to important shipping routes in the South China Sea.
It should be noted that North Korea’s delegation to the Winter Games will not stop Pyongyang’s nuclear tests. Kim Jong-Un considers his nuclear arsenal imperative to the regime’s survival. Moreover, it is unlikely that a warming of relations between South and North Korea will lead to significant talks between North Korea and the United States. Although Pyongyang may agree to end nuclear tests, it will not give up its nuclear arsenal and will demand to be considered a nuclear state. This is a point that has been and will remain untenable to President Trump.