Tristan Webb

Olympic rapprochement for now…

Tristan Webb
Olympic rapprochement for now…

SOUTH KOREA’S PRESIDENT MOON JAE-IN TOLD THE UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September last year that he wanted to use the PyeongChang Olympic games as an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations.

He has certainly enjoyed success so far: Politburo member Kim Yo Jong attended (the first time someone from the founding family of North Korea has visited the South), and Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has now invited Moon for a summit meeting. This would be Kim Jong Un’s first summit since assuming power in 2011, an ore substantial? While firmly supportive of the US alliance, Moon wants to aim for peaceful coexistence with North Korea. He wants to return to the 4th October 2007 inter-Korean agreement and create a new “northern economy,” expanding the economies of both countries. He has some tailwinds in in his favour, but strong headwinds against.

Moon’s first tailwind is his popularity. Recently UN Secretary-General Guterres enthused the UN’s “full support” for Moon’s “courageous initiatives;” Pope Francis welcomed the inter-Korean co-operation and hoped for “dialogue and mutual respect”; and Washington has even, albeit reluctantly, let military exercises be deferred till the Olympics finish. South Korea’s domestic opinion is split on North Korean co-operation, but overall still strongly supportive of Moon (63% approval in February, according to Gallup Korea).

Moon also benefits from opportunity: the Olympics are being held again in the region in 2020 (Tokyo) and 2022 (Beijing). He told UNGA he wants these three games to “promot[e] peace and economic co-operation in Northeast Asia”: Japan and China are unlikely to oppose this as hosts, so there is a stretch of opportunity ahead for sustained sports diplomacy and co-operation.

A still stronger tailwind is that North Korea says it has now completed its state nuclear force (November 2017). This poses a difficulty for Moon: can he continue denying North Korea is a de facto nuclear state? But it does at least mean future peace talks are less likely to be interrupted by nuclear tests. Despite these tailwinds in President Moon’s favour, there are stronger headwinds against him.

First, there is a lot of scepticism about whether Moon’s ‘sunshine’ approach will work. Beyond this, some people would rather risk perpetuating the status quo of stable hostility. Washington’s fears of Moon’s approach include a decline of US regional influence and arms sales.

Pyongyang’s fears include unpredictable social changes precipitated by peace and opening; many in Seoul fear Pyongyang will take but not give.

Furthermore, the comprehensive scale of UN Security Council and US sanctions currently preclude many of Moon’s policy ambitions. Without sanctions, Moon’s plan for economic co-operation would be straightforward: reconnect rails and roads, and connect South Korean capital and technology with North Korean labour and minerals. But sanctions jeopardise all this. Moon will either have to persuade others to lift sanctions (difficult); find loopholes (risky); or limit engagement to humanitarian schemes like sport and aid (insufficient).

In addition, Moon Jae-in faces the perennial standoff on the details of denuclearisation: particularly the sequencing of it. All parties support “denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula,” but Washington insists this means North Korea disarming unilaterally (which it won’t), while Pyongyang insists the term includes the USA ending its nuclear threat to the Korean peninsula (which it won’t - at least, not materially).

Therefore, while the PyeongChang Olympics have so far been a success for Moon’s approach, the games are just the start of a difficult and uncertain path ahead, and we cannot count on peaceful coexistence yet.

Is there a part for the UK here? As a P5 member and bilateral partner the UK nominally supports the two Koreas’ vision for peaceful coexistence (even unification), but Whitehall’s strategic priorities remain to support Washington, promote trade with South Korea, and expand UK military horizons. The EU might regain observer status if the Six Party Talks resume, but post-Brexit it’s unlikely the UK would be involved. The UK’s diplomatic and military channels with North Korea might become more useful in future, but for now seem relatively cold.

As for the Labour Party, well it has a unique opportunity it could make more of. Being the formal equivalent of North Korea’s Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Labour is able to place requests for senior meetings with the WPK and discuss issues of importance. Due to the nature of the North Korean polity such political access can be very difficult for others to get. Carrying the potential to contribute in a unique and positive way to the development of peace on the Korean peninsula the Labour Party should take advantage of it and talk with the WPK.

is a PhD student in international law at the University of Kent, an analyst for Korea Risk Group, and sits on the council of the British Association for Korean Studies. From 2012-2014 he was a senior research analyst covering the DPRK for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.