Olympics diplomacy cannot solve the Korea crisis

We should not mistake Olympic goodwill for geopolitical change on the Korean Peninsula.

Korea olympics reuters
South Korean President Moon Jae-in shakes hands with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, in Seoul [KCNA/Reuters]

The images from the past week on the Korean Peninsula have been striking. First, there was the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea which – for the first time ever – featured a combined ice hockey team and a procession from the two Koreas. But, of greater significance was the presence of two senior emissaries from North Korea – Kim Yong-nam, a former foreign minister who serves as a ceremonial head of state, and Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. The two North Korean officials were invited to the Blue House in Seoul and held meetings – dressed with smiles and handshakes – with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. During the meeting, Kim Yo Jong delivered an invitation from her older brother for Moon to visit North Korea at his earliest convenience.

This inter-Koreas diplomacy is even more stunning when you take into account the tensions on the Korean Peninsula over the past few years. In the past year alone, Kim Jong-un has launched more than 70 ballistic missile tests – including two of intercontinental range – and detonated a thermonuclear device this past September. All of this despite an increased tightening of the screws on Pyongyang through multiple rounds of hard-hitting sanctions enacted by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), ramped up efforts and deterrence by the United States and its East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, and increased rhetoric about the potential use of military force by the US if North Korea does not alter its course. 

What comes next will be critical. On the one hand, it is a positive development to see the wonderful celebration of sports and humanity as demonstrated in the Olympics in Pyeongchang. It is also welcome to see leaders from Seoul and Pyongyang meet and discuss improving relations. But, as historical as the past week was, it is also crucially important not to overstate the effect of these exchanges on efforts by the US and its allies to change North Korea’s calculus on its nuclear weapons programme. Indeed, North Korea has always been willing to talk, as evidenced by several periods of inter-Korea warmth over the past decades.

But while the Kim regime is happy to engage in open dialogue with the Moon administration, there should be zero illusions that this dialogue is meant to begin negotiations on its nuclear programme. Indeed, just days before Moon met Kim’s sister, the regime in Pyongyang brandished its rapidly improving missile capabilities during a large-scale military parade in the capital city. North Korea has also stressed, on numerous occasions, that its nuclear programme is not up for bargaining and has enshrined its status as sacrosanct through Kim Jong-un’s byungjin line – which focusses parallel strategies on nuclear weapons development and economic growth – as its foundation. 

Olympic diplomacy is a good story, but, in two weeks, the Games will end, and there will be little chance that the tensions on the Korean Peninsula will have meaningfully subsided.


Herein lies the trouble of mistaking Olympic goodwill for geopolitical change on the Korean Peninsula. While the Moon administration in South Korea genuinely believes that it can push both tracks – dialogue alongside pressure – this will prove to be more challenging in the coming months. North Korea’s long-standing strategy is to buy time – effectively giving it more space to achieve its ultimate goal of a credible nuclear deterrent that can reach the US. And, while Pyongyang has already achieved much success in this regard, there are still steps needed – especially with regard to perfecting the re-entry vehicle of its missiles – before it can rest and comfortably “freeze” weapons development, to start another concession-inducing negotiation with the US and its allies.

The Moon administration has now placed itself in a difficult position, as Pyongyang has, once again, played a strong hand in extending an invitation for a summit. Seoul responded by noting a Moon visit would be possible under the “right conditions” – surely alluding to a sign of seriousness from North Korea on its nuclear weapons programme. North Korea’s shrewd diplomacy has left it in a strong position for the Kim regime, which is already flowing with overconfidence after its recent, successful tests.

Prior to the Olympics, Moon had asked US President Donald Trump to suspend the US-South Korean bilateral military exercises directly before the games – in an attempt to de-escalate rising tensions with Pyongyang and soothe concerns of a provocation during the games. The large-scale, bilateral exercises – Foal Eagle – are scheduled for April, but their continued delay will almost certainly be a non-starter condition for North Korea to meet Moon. This puts South Korea, along with the US, in a tough spot. As evidenced by the stony-faced reception by US Vice President Mike Pence during the Pyeongchang opening ceremony, Washington is not on the same page with Moon regarding the timing of his olive branch to North Korea. 

Indeed, the US – as well as Japan – remain unconvinced that now is the time for dialogue with Pyongyang. North Korea has successfully seized the initiative, however, sensing Moon’s optimism for a middle path. This creates a perfect situation for Pyongyang, which has long built its strategy on the Korean Peninsula on decoupling Seoul and Washington, and – more recently – fracturing trilateral cooperation between Japan, the US and South Korea. 

In the coming weeks, it will be important for South Korea to show solidarity with the US and Japan, and keep a regional focus on the sustained provocations and development of North Korea’s nuclear programme – all of which are directly in defiance of numerous UNSC sanctions. Olympic diplomacy is a good story, but, in two weeks, the Games will end, and there will be little chance that the tensions on the Korean Peninsula will have meaningfully subsided.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.