Winter Olympics 2018: Is North Korea really coming in from the cold in Pyeongchang?

Bronwen Maddox
Unified Korea torchbearers during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games: AFP/Getty Images

Tall, pale-skinned, her black, shoulder-length hair scraped straight back, sometimes pictured with a slight smile, the sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, bears only a faint resemblance to her jowly, bristle-haired brother, who has made his isolated country the world’s newest nuclear weapons state. But when she steps off a private jet today in PyeongChang, South Korea, at the start of the Winter Olympics, Kim Yo-jong will show that relations between the north and south of the divided peninsula, in the deep freeze for decades, might just be warming up.

North Korean athletes, who accepted the invitation to attend just weeks ago after a flurry of courtship by South Korea, have been taking a cheery, centre-stage role in the opening of the Games. In scarlet jackets and caps with gold braid, their 140-strong orchestra played in the welcoming ceremony, along with the “army of beauties” cheerleading squad. Their skiers, beaming under mirrored goggles, have waved at all the cameras. Their ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam, the most senior North Korean ever to travel south, has come too.

Does this mean that North Korea has chosen the Winter Olympics to come in from the cold? Could we see it giving up its nuclear weapons? Could it mean an end to the threat of war between the US and North Korea? For the past, tense year that has affected even countries such as Britain more than 5,000 miles away because it threatens the horror — almost unthinkable but impossible to dismiss — of the world’s first nuclear exchange.

Sadly not. For all the primary colours of the Winter Olympics, there is every reason to think the presence of the North Korean delegation marks a hard, shrewd bid by its leader to lure South Korea away from its great ally, the US. The overtures by South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-in, represent an equally pragmatic view about how to take his country out of the line of fire. Even if the lunch tomorrow between President Moon and the North Koreans discusses absolutely nothing of any importance, this contact could still signal the beginning of the end of a long era of American influence in the region.

The problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons has been boiling up since 1994, when the regime announced that it was about to pull out of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. That pact requires countries without nuclear weapons not to try to get them. It wasn’t until 2003 that North Korea declared it actually was leaving the treaty, but just three years later it held its first nuclear test.

Since then, the United Nations Security Council has passed eight resolutions slapping on layers of sanctions. The effect has been to shut North Korea out of the world financial system, and to stop it exporting the coal, minerals and textiles it needs to pay for imports. China has backed the sanctions, although it has allowed in fuel, food and other essentials. But the toughest sanctions so far late last year clamped down even on these.

There are cases where sanctions have worked; Iran is arguably one. It froze its nuclear programme at least for a time in return for an easing of curbs. But North Korea represents a resounding failure. The regime has just kept on building nuclear devices, testing them and building and testing rockets with ever longer range — now, possibly, able to reach cities deep within the US.

Into this relentless drama a new player has emerged — Donald Trump. At first, the new president was flailing at so many perceived enemies — immigrants, Islamic State, predatory trade partners — that North Korea seemed likely to escape special attention. But as Kim’s rockets kept launching, they provoked the new president into a fusillade of tweets against the “Little Rocket Man”.

Will Trump go further? Who knows — and there lies the danger. He and his officials, despite months of ambiguous and contradictory assertions, have hinted often that they regard military action as a possibility.

The US has no good options, though. Do nothing, and North Korea may equip itself with missiles that can carry nuclear warheads to the heart of the US. Maybe it would never fire them — but could any president live with that risk? Try to wipe out its nuclear installations — or just Kim himself — and the regime would retaliate. The US allies of South Korea and Japan would be prime targets.

And they know it. President Moon’s motive for reaching out to the north is clear. It makes Seoul, a capital city of gleaming glass towers and eight million people, just a little less likely to be a collateral casualty of any conflict. It’s not been without cost to him. Young South Koreans have taken to the streets to accuse him of compromising their values. Many are sceptical, too; no point trying to tell Kim that we’re family, they say — this is a man who seems to have had his half-brother killed last year just for the challenge he might pose.

But with a long-time ally and a lethal neighbour squaring up to each other, President Moon has chosen the course of self-preservation and edged a little closer to it. That suits the North just fine — not least because Japan may ask the same questions now too.

This was always China’s problem to solve. It still is. China doesn’t want to bring Kim’s regime down as it doesn’t want a united Korean peninsula, friendly to the US, as its neighbour. But it doesn’t want war — possibly a nuclear war — either. And it has the only real leverage over the north.

Even if the overtures from the south to the north go no further, they have won both countries more room to manoeuvre. And before a single athlete has climbed a podium to receive a medal, it’s also clear that the US, even if subtly, has lost real ground.

Bronwen Maddox is director of the Institute for Government think-tank