MACK WILLIAMS. Breaking the ice at Pyeongchang?

Jan 8, 2018

The decision by the DPRK to reopen high level talks with the ROK next week in preparation for the Winter Olympics is monumental for the ROK. Followed by the US:ROK decision to defer major military exercises at the time of the Games it could well provide an opportunity for informal contacts which could lead eventually to direct US:DPRK talks.  

Not surprisingly, next week’s scheduled ROK:DPRK talks have spurred a renewed burst of speculation (even optimism) that they will provide an opportunity to get wider dialogue with the US back on track again. Media in the past few months has concentrated more on the personal diatribe between President Trump and Kim Jong-un. But there have been the occasional signs that conversations have been continuing among the major players behind the scene.

It commenced with the public “good cop: bad cop” routine between Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson in early December. The latter proclaimed that the US was prepared for direct talks with the DPRK “without pre-condition” but “only after a period of quiet” only to have the White House proclaim that Trump had not changed his position on talks with the DPRK. A comment by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov revealed that Russia had been engaged in active discussions with both sides. Russia urged the US to defer/halt a series of long planned large scale US:ROK military exercises at the time of the Games to help create the scene for direct US:DPRK dialogue – as had the Chinese. But all seemingly to fall on deaf ears in Washington.

As the apparent limbo continued the ROK had become increasingly concerned about security problems for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. Not only was there the question of possible action by the North to disrupt the Games but also the hope that the DPRK would choose to participate – and if so the myriad of detailed arrangements this would require for the DPRK team.

Apart from anything else, Pyeongchang 2018 carries enormous symbolism for the ROK. It has become widely accepted that the 1988 Seoul Olympics marked the entry of the ROK into the rest of the world after its years of struggle. 30 years later, Pyeongchang 2018 has come to be an icon for modern Korea’s place in the world. Its success has become a major national strategic objective. Arrangements between the two Koreas about participation in international or regional sporting events in the South have always proven difficult. While at the Sydney Olympics the two Koreas marched under a compromise flag that has not often been agreed. This time it seems that, like with the Asian Games in Busan, the North will come with cheer squads, entertainers and maybe even “spectators”. All of which will require extremely careful planning including transport through the DMZ.

So from a strictly ROK point of view the DPRK reaction has been almost “monumental” though recognising that it could well prove to be a one-off. Initially the media tried to whip up a crisis between Seoul and Washington following yet another personally obnoxious tweet from Trump about nuclear buttons and the like. Speculation was rife that this could lead to a rift between Seoul and Washington with many American commentators claiming that Trump would be riled by Seoul’s decision to proceed with talks with the DPRK. But clearly more was still going on in the secret dialogue with the Russians.

Seoul quickly got out a message denying, of course, that the ROK:DPRK talks would present any difficulty to the solid ROK:US position on the denuclearisation of the DPRK! And confirming that the ROK would raise the nuclear issue in the talks.

But the clincher was a telephone discussion yesterday between Trump and President Moon in which it was agreed to defer the military exercises until after the Games – thus meeting one of the “preconditions” which Russia and China have long proposed – and one which will have been welcomed by Moon. This has cleared a major obstacle to US:DPRK direct dialogue and the Games themselves could well offer the opportunity for a step down that road – albeit informally. All the more as Trump has decided to send a member of his family to represent the US Government at the Games. Watch this space!

Mack Williams, Former Ambassador to the ROK, graduate of Royal College of Defence Studies

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