As the Winter Olympics come to a close, could relations thaw between the US and North Korea?

Although the situation is still uncertain, it's not the first time international diplomacy has been affected by the games

February 26, 2018
The closing ceremony at the South Korean Winter Olympics. But what will the games mean for North-South relations? Photo: PA
The closing ceremony at the South Korean Winter Olympics. But what will the games mean for North-South relations? Photo: PA

As the Winter Olympics closed on Sunday, it has been revealed that the event may deliver another unexpected geopolitical dividend. That is, North Korea has now indicated it is willing to start direct talks with the United States without pre-conditions—potentially building on the recent mini-rapprochement between North and the South in recent weeks.

The announcement follows a meeting between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and head of the North Korean delegation, Kim Yong-chol, vice chairman of the ruling Workers party's central committee.

In response, the White House said Sunday that“a brighter path is available for North Korea if it chooses denuclearisation. We will see if Pyongyang's message today, that it is willing to hold talks, represents the first steps along the path to denuclearisation.”

Should the Olympics ultimately help contribute to a sustained thaw in relations between North Korea and the United States in coming month—which remains highly uncertain—it would prove a surprise very few anticipated even a few weeks ago.

During the opening ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence refused to stand for the delegations from North and South Korea, who made a point of entering the stadium together.

Only in December, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had painted a bleaker scenario after months of rising tensions in the peninsular, highlighting that security challenges from North Korea meant that it was even an “open question” whether US athletes would be able to compete at the games because of the problem “of how we protect US citizens in the area.”

The shifting sands since then have seen an unexpected warming between Pyongyang and Seoul which began with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year message that the Olympics would be a “good opportunity to show unity of the people.”

He also spoke of potentially melting “frozen North-South relations.”

Since then, the two nations have re-opened a diplomatic hotline, and the Trump team has also consented to suspend joint military drills previously scheduled to coincide with the games.

Pyongyang later confirmed that it would send athletes and cheerleaders to the games in PyeongChang after the nation’s first high-level, bilateral talks with Seoul in two years. The latter has at least temporarily lifted sanctions to allow the former to attend the Olympics.

These shifting sands underline that while hosting such major sporting contests often still commands significant national prestige, they have considerable unpredictability with several such recent events having been plagued by political and wider risks and controversies.

Take the example of the most recent Summer Olympics in Brazil in 2016. When Rio won in 2009 the right to host the games, the national economy was booming and the country was enjoying significantly enhanced international prestige as a leading emerging market within the so-called BRICS group of nations.

By 2016, however, Brazil was mired in political crisis surrounding the impeachment of President Dilma Roussef, and the worst recession in decades which forced significant spending cuts to the Olympic budget.

This difficult backdrop for hosting the Olympics was worsened when more than 100 prominent doctors and professors wrote an open letter to the World Health Organisation asking for the games to be postponed or moved from Brazil “in the name of public health.”

This was in light of the widening Zika outbreak which became the worst health crisis facing Brazil since at least 1918, according to the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a leading health research institution based in Rio.

Whether the 2018 Winter games will, in coming years, ultimately command a more positive narrative and stronger legacy than Rio in 2016 is still not 100 per cent certain.

In part, this is because while ties between North and South Korea are at least temporarily warmer, tensions between Pyongyang and Washington remain high, and US President Donald Trump announced a new wave of sanctions only a few days ago.

Recent weeks has also seen the spectacle of Trump remarking that the size of his “nuclear button” is bigger and more powerful than Kim’s in North Korea.

The latter had earlier made the unwise boast, following recent missile and nuclear tests, that “the entire mainland of the US is within the range of our nuclear weapons and the nuclear button is always on the desk of my office.”

With the US homeland looking increasingly vulnerable, and the possibility of further North Korean missile and nuclear tests in 2018, Trump and some key allies in the region, including Japan, are looking at potential options to intensify international pressure on Pyongyang which may lead to new spikes in tensions.

Aside from the possibility of military force, scenarios include further sanctions, and the possibility of a naval blockade to enforce existing sanctions—including interdicting ships suspected of selling North Korea weapons abroad, one of the regime’s key sources of income.

This backdrop underlines the fragility of the unexpected window of opportunity that has opened up. Securing a significant and sustained de-escalation in tensions on the peninsular will not be easy, even with a previously unanticipated Olympic dividend.