The North Korean delegation led by Ri Son Gwon crosses the concrete border to attend a meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom. Photograph:( Reuters )
The two Koreas are eyeball-to-eyeball one day, engaged in a slanging match the other and jaw-jaw the next day. Over the last 65 years, only the actors have changed, not the script. North Korea (NK), meanwhile, has gone about merrily developing a range of WMD.
Last year, NK conducted its most powerful nuclear test ever, demonstrated its ability to even launch an ICBM, engaged in chilling rhetoric (duly matched for the first time by an American President), threatened destruction of the US and South Korea (ROK), shrugged off ever-tightening UNSC sanctions and contemptuously dismissed South Korean peace overtures.
And then suddenly on 1st January, Kim Jong-un (KJU) offered to talk to Seoul and expressed willingness to send his athletes to participate in the Winter Olympics at PyeongChang, which is taking place between 9 to 25 February 2018. President Moon Jae-in, whose parents migrated from North Korea, has always been a votary of peace and reconciliation. He grabbed the offer with alacrity.
Restoration of North-South military hotline followed. USA and ROK quickly consented to postpone the annual joint military exercises, as demanded by Pyongyang. President Trump promptly credited his hardline policy for the thaw. Ministerial-level talks were held successfully at the ‘Peace Village’ at DMZ on 9th January, with the sides agreeing to North Korean participation, resumption of a military dialogue to lower tensions and further talks on related issues.
What led to these dramatic developments, all in a span of nine days? First and foremost, it was North’s growing isolation. Increasing Chinese discomfiture with Kim Jong-un was the other reason.
UNSC sanctions were steadily tightening. The cap on supply of oil and petroleum products, if implemented in right earnest (unlikely!), could potentially cause genuine hardship to the Kim regime. Its avenues of earning foreign exchange were getting choked. NK’s missions abroad, which routinely engage in illicit activities to generate cash, were coming under a scanner.
Countries, including Kuwait, Mexico, Malaysia, Peru, Philippines, Spain and Thailand had begun downgrading or suspending diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. The US, Japan and ROK had begun singing from the same music sheet. That was the cue for NK to tactically shift gears.
Going by its play-book, NK extended the olive branch, to ease the mounting pressure, buy time, extract some freebies from ROK and try to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington.
For good reasons, Seoul has, historically, taken a softer approach towards Pyongyang, while the US has advocated a muscular one. Also, the optics; NK athletes are capable of winning a few medals, which will sit well with the home crowd. Media across the world will live-stream footage of smiling and smartly turned-out NK sportspersons, constituting good propaganda value. NK can rest assured that South Koreans will reserve their loudest cheers for the NK contingent.
The South Korean public, politicians, media and academia – hawks and doves in equal measure – will again fathom signs of thaw and hope. There would be renewed calls for resuming humanitarian assistance. The sides may even arrive at a secret understanding or two, which would only surface over time. It may be recalled that ROK President Kim Dae-jung’s ‘successful’ Sunshine Policy and summit with Kim Jong-il, was anchored on a secret ‘gift’ of US$500 million to North Korea.
And then NK will launch its next missile, conduct one more nuclear test, commit another provocation or simply get ‘offended’ at ROK-US joint military exercises, abruptly shattering ROK’s dream sequence.
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL).