Seoul, South Korea – If a newly struck deal holds, the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea will have some special, unexpected guests; a delegation of athletes, officials, performers and supporters from North Korea.
In a surprising bit of rapprochement, officials from South and North Korea held a set of meetings on Tuesday where they reached an agreement for North Korea to attend the Winter Olympics next month in Pyeongchang, a county in the mountains of northeast South Korea.
The deal comes on the heels of months of tensions, as North Korea has conducted a series of tests that indicate significant advancement towards its ability to strike anywhere in the United States with a nuclear weapon.
Until recently, North Korea had appeared to be in a combative mood, and the last time North Korea made major headlines in South Korea was last month when a young soldier defected across the same border area where Tuesday’s meetings were held, fleeing a hail of gunfire from comrades trying to take him down as he fled.
Also, early this month, the leaders of North Korea and the US, South Korea’s main ally, traded harsh words, with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un mentioning in his New Year’s speech the nuclear button he says is on his desk, prompting US President Donald Trump to say on Twitter that he has one of those too, and his is bigger.
But in that same speech, Kim planted the seeds for Tuesday’s meeting by floating the idea of sending a delegation to Pyeongchang.
The South Korean government, led by left-leaning President Moon Jae-in, jumped at the chance to improve long dormant ties between the two sides and suggested meeting.
And that gathering seemed to go swimmingly. The two sides started the day all smiles and kind words, with the head of North Korea’s delegation saying his side planned to give South Korea “invaluable results as the first present of the year”.
The two sides hadn’t held formal meetings in more than two years, and North Korea boycotted the only other Olympics ever held in South Korea, in 1988.
Why has North Korea suddenly decided to play nice?
North Korea’s weapons programmes are expensive, and the country may have determined that better relations with South Korea could provide a needed boost to its economy.
“Based on Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day speech, it appears that North Korea may be ready to turn greater attention towards its economy. International sanctions have likely prevented the North Koreans from expanding its economy.
Talks with South Korea and participation in the Olympics may provide a potential opening to bring some sanctions relief for North Korea,” said Andrew Yeo, an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
Also on Tuesday, the two sides agreed to hold talks based on calming military tensions, raising the possibility that this could be the beginning of a phase of greater interchange.
Both sides have incentives to keep cooperation going beyond the Olympics, argues Mason Richey, an associate professor of politics in the Graduate School of International and Area Studies, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.
“The agreement to hold military talks shows that South Korea is trying to keep the momentum going forward,” Richey said.
As for North Korea, Richey said, “Every bit of this conversation on the Olympics that allows them to push for concessions, or sanctions relief, or possibly drive a wedge between South Korea and the US, is a good thing for them”.
Washington is South Korea’s closest partner and North Korea’s adversary. The US government has welcomed these talks and, for Seoul, continued coordination with Washington could be key for sustained progress in dealing with North Korea.
“This is not about major breakthroughs on the security front, but baby steps in reducing tension overall. North Korea policy has been plagued by coordination problems among involved countries, so the United States and South Korea, in particular, should remain in close contact moving ahead,” said Naoko Aoki, an adjunct fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS.
Seoul and Pyongyang still need to iron out details such as how the North Korean delegation would travel to the South, where their lodging would be and other matters. It is possible that disagreement over such points could scuttle Tuesday’s agreement.
There is also the possibility that the rapprochement could last through the Olympics, then fizzle in the spring when South Korea and the US hold annual military exercises.
As a gesture meant to bring down tensions during the Olympics, South Korea and the US agreed to delay some the drills until after the games.
“The US and South Korea have only postponed rather than cancelled their springtime annual exercises so that the Olympics and Paralympics can pass smoothly.
Once the exercises get under way, North Korea is likely to be angered,” said Yoel Sano, Head of Global Political and Security Risk, for BMI Research.
There are analysts who argue that negotiations with North Korea are limited in what they can accomplish, as cooperation with outside powers runs counter to the country’s ideology, and that Pyongyang will not budge from its goal of becoming the nuclear-armed, single ruler of the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea expert Brian Myers wrote in a recent book, “One cannot reason with a dictator whose legitimacy derives from a pose of implacable hostility”.