Not all South Koreans are buying in to President Moon Jae-in’s fast-track outreach to the North.
Wednesday’s announcement that the divided Koreas will march together under a “unified” flag into the Winter Olympics in the South has triggered sharp pushback in Seoul, where many are wary about easing the international campaign to isolate the regime of Kim Jong-un over its nuclear and missile programs without receiving anything in return.
While the Trump administration watches closely from Washington, some caution that Mr. Moon may have yielded too hastily to the North’s Olympic demands in the hope of appeasing Pyongyang away from carrying out fresh nuclear and ballistic missile provocations during the high-profile games that start Feb. 9.
“South Korea must not allow itself to become a propaganda tool for the North Korean regime,” warned an editorial this week in The Chosun Ilbo, a major paper in Seoul known for its generally conservative posture.
“It’s a polarized political environment in the South, so we knew there would be this pushback to the outreach to the North over the Olympics,” said Scott Snyder, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations whose recent book, “South Korea at the Crossroads” examines the foreign policy dynamics at play in Seoul.
“I think it’s too early to say if the pushback right now represents a majority of South Koreans or not,” Mr. Snyder said in an interview Wednesday. “There’s definitely going to be a perception put forward by conservative groups that the Moon administration is giving too much away to the North.
“Moon is going to going to have to find a way of countering that,” he said. “If it looks like he’s giving the games away, or if the North is seen to be exploiting the opening of the Olympics purely for propaganda purposes without doing anything in return, Moon is going to have a problem.”
Officials from North and South held their first direct talks in two years last week. The South’s Yonhap News Agency reported Wednesday that the two have also agreed to create a joint women’s ice hockey team and that Pyongyang will send a 230-member cheering squad and a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team to the Winter Games.
The flurry of sports diplomacy contrasts with tensions that have risen on the peninsula in recent years amid a series of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile tests by the North. President Trump and Mr. Kim traded increasingly personal insults last year as fears of an impending military clash soared.
The Trump administration responded cautiously as North-South ties expanded. Mr. Trump authorized a suspension of U.S.-South Korea military drills while the Olympics discussions play out. He also has indicated fresh openness to the prospect of eventual U.S. talks with North Korea.
But the administration has also moved more American military assets into the region — deploying six nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to Guam — closer to the 30,000 U.S. military personnel in South Korea, which has technically remained at conflict with the North since a 1953 armistice froze the Korean War.
At the same time, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has spent recent days co-hosting meeting of diplomats in Canada to show international solidarity against North Korean weapons tests that Washington and its allies say violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono suggested that the North’s charm offensive around the Olympics could be bogus, with Pyongyang simply buying “time to continue [its] nuclear and missile programs.”
Mr. Tillerson said the Trump administration’s plan is to continue pushing allies, as well as regional powers China and Russia, to isolate North Korea with sanctions until Pyongyang “takes decisive steps to denuclearize.”
Need for pressure
But South Korea’s participation is critical to maintaining a united front against the North’s provocations, as well as ensuring that economic sanctions and other international efforts to isolate the North are effective.
Analysts also stress the need for Washington to maintain pressure regardless of the sudden appearance of unity between North and South.
The Olympics provide a respite from growing tensions but not a solution,” said Patrick Cronin, who heads the Asia-Pacific program at the Center for New American Studies in Washington. “Just as pressure requires engagement, engagement requires maintaining pressure if we are to find a peaceful path forward.”
Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, a former intelligence official who served as U.S. special envoy to multilateral talks on North Korea before they broke down in 2009, went further. “Although I’m supportive of the North sending a team to the Winter Olympics, we should not be lulled by this sudden rush for collaboration with the South,” he said. “It appears to be a tactical move on the part of Kim Jong-un.
“The South no doubt remembers the North’s repeated claims to make Seoul a sea of ashes,” Mr. DeTrani said. “Let’s not take our eye off our ultimate objective: the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North’s nuclear programs.”
It’s unclear how Mr. Moon, whose political mentor, former President Roh Moo-hyun, was a strong proponent of the “Sunshine Policy” of active engagement with the North, plans to navigate the situation. North Korean officials reportedly reacted angrily when South Korean officials tried to mention Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program during the Olympics talks.
State media in the North accused Mr. Moon of using “stupid and nasty words” when he asserted during a press conference a day after the talks began that Seoul will keep sanctions pressure on Pyongyang until the nuclear issue is resolved.
South Korean conservatives have questioned Mr. Moon’s apparent policy of pursuing better relations with the North without confronting the nuclear issue upfront. The traditionally neutral Korea Herald, an English-language daily in Seoul, cautioned in an editorial Wednesday that the Moon administration may find itself victim to North Korean intimidation.
The big question, Mr. Snyder said, is whether the Moon administration’s outreach results in something more than a short-term insurance policy against provocations from the North while the Winter Olympics are underway.
“The current North Korean policy has not changed in terms of its hostility and frustration toward the United States,” Mr. Snyder said. “Can Moon use the Olympics experience to turn the North Koreans around on that?
“What he needs is for the highest-level representative from the North who comes to the South for Olympics to basically endorse or say Pyongyang is willing to participate in dialogue with the United States.”
Separately, Mr. Trump complained in an interview with the Reuters news agency Wednesday that Russia was another weak link in the campaign to keep the pressure on North Korea over its nuclear programs.
“Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea,” Mr. Trump said. “What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin “can do a lot” to pressure Pyongyang, Mr. Trump added, ‘but unfortunately we don’t have much of a relationship with Russia, and in some cases it’s probable that what China takes back, Russia gives. So the net result is not as good as it could be.”