North Korea Takes Gold for Olympic Diplomacy: Analysts

   •    26 Februari 2018 12:56 WIB
east asia (en)
North Korea Takes Gold for Olympic Diplomacy: Analysts
The North Korean delegation wave North Korean and Unified Korea flags as they parade during the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 25, 2018. (Photo:AFP/Wang Zhao)

Seoul: While its athletes are returning home empty-handed from the Winter Olympics, analysts say nuclear-armed North Korea deserves a gold medal for its diplomatic skills, but that the Games-driven detente will be short-lived.

An intense rapprochement saw the two Koreas march into the opening ceremony together behind a unification flag, and South Korea's president shared a historic handshake with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's visiting sister.

North Korea sent 22 athletes to the Games, most of whom had humiliating finishes, and a hastily-assembled joint women's ice hockey team lost every one of its five matches, scoring just twice while conceding 28 goals.

But analysts say the Winter Olympics was never about winning medals for the North.

"It was all about image-making," said Koo Kab-woo, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

"They proved they are not a 'rogue state' and also got around sanctions."

Tensions between the two soared last year as Pyongyang tested missiles capable of reaching the US mainland and its most powerful nuclear device to date, while Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump traded personal insults and threats of war.

The North is subject to multiple rounds of UN Security Council sanctions over its banned weapons programmes.

After prevaricating for years over whether it would take part, North Korea sent its athletes and 200-plus female cheerleaders who roamed the Games venue with big smiles and friendly waves, becoming a focus for many spectators.

The sight of North and South Korean hockey players hugging and tearing up after the unified team's final match touched many fans, despite initial opposition in the South to the formation of the team.

But it was the trip to the South for the opening ceremony by Kim's younger sister Kim Yo Jong, the first member of the North's ruling dynasty to visit since the 1953 end of the Korean War, that was the highlight of Pyongyang's charm offensive.

"She was a perfect person to give a message and that is exactly what she has done," said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University.

"She invited President Moon Jae-in for a summit and she smiled broadly," he added. She created a good impression, which was "exactly what North Koreans wanted".

"They are brilliant diplomats, they are highly rational, some are cynical, very Machiavellian and usually very, very successful."

'Dead end' 

The Olympic-driven detente between the two Koreas has prompted a flurry of cross-border exchanges, although Moon did not immediately accept the invitation to a summit with Kim Jong Un.

But Lankov said: "The major problem is not between North and South Korea. The major problem is between North Korea and the United States. 

"Therefore, no amount of talks between North and the South Korea is going to change anything significantly."

The dovish South Korean president who advocates engagement over pressure has been trying to broker talks between the US and North Korea.

Moon met for an hour on Sunday with visiting North Korean general Kim Yong Chol, who according to Seoul expressed Pyongyang's willingness to hold discussions with Washington.

The North has long expressed its desire to talk to Washington without preconditions, and its stance on nuclear arms, the "treasured sword" it says it needs to defend itself against the risk of US invasion, has not changed.

In response to the general's comments, the White House reiterated Pyongyang must first take concrete steps towards disarming.

"In the meantime, the United States and the world must continue to make clear that North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes are a dead end," it said in a statement.

Kim Yo Jong had no interaction with US Vice President Mike Pence at the opening ceremony, though they were just a few seats apart. According to the US, a planned meeting between the delegations from Washington and Pyongyang the following day was cancelled at short notice by the North Koreans.

Similarly US President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka did not communicate with general Kim at the closing ceremony on Sunday.

Washington imposed fresh sanctions on Friday, with Trump describing them as the heaviest ever.

With the two sides unwilling to make concessions on "the most important issue" and the fundamentals unchanged, Lankov said: "It's just a short kind of relaxation, which is likely to be followed by another escalation, another period of tensions very soon, probably from early April."

After the Paralympics end in March, South Korea and the US are due to hold delayed large-scale joint military exercises which always infuriate Pyongyang.

Koo told AFP: "The problem is what happens after Pyeongchang." (AFP)