A hot Winter Olympics


Never before has the North Korean nuclear threat garnered so much global attention, culminating – thus far at least – in the Winter Olympics, being staged in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where there are currently some intriguing power plays at work.

On Saturday, South Korea’s president is to hold a historic meeting with the North Korean Olympics delegation that will include Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who has become the first member of the ruling dynasty to visit the South.

US Vice President Mike Pence is also in Pyeongchang where he announced the US would soon unveil “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever”.

Undeterred, North Korea held a military parade attended by leader Kim just a day before the Olympics opening. The stars of the show were four ballistic missiles which claim a range of more than 13,000 km which would theoretically put Washington DC in range.

The annual traditional military display, moved forward two months, was definitely held to provoke the US. But perhaps not too much. North Korean TV only aired delayed footage when it usually broadcasts it live, perhaps an attempt to keep the parade low key.

Still, and despite Pence’s sanctions pledge, it is highly likely North Korea will continue to ignore US demands for it to halt its nuclear and missile programs. It’s probably too close to the end of its program to simply stop now.

However, Washington will probably not resort to the N-option in view of the lack of support for that option among all other major world powers. In addition, the US most likely would not be able to deliver enough strikes to take out all of North Korea’s nuclear and missile sites, which are diffuse and hidden in different mountainous areas. There is also the argument that in the event of a US strike, Pyongyang would not attack the US per say but unleash nuclear weapons against the next best thing -- South Korean, Japanese or US military bases in the region.

Such potential risks make negotiating with Pyongyang the only sensible course in order to avert a dangerous setback to the international community’s drive to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Without US engagement with North Korea, Pyongyang at some point in the future could trade the products of its nuclear and missile programs with other rogue states, such as Iran, or with terrorist groups such as Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS), in order to obtain hard currency.

Which is why Washington’s threat of more sanctions against North Korea is not the smartest decision. Had the US refrained from such an announcement, it could conceivably have paved the way for some sort of contact with North Korea at the Olympics, seeing how physically close the two sides will be in the Pyeongchang arena. That’s a missed opportunity, and just as North and South Korean ties are thawing. In addition to Saturday’s meeting, unimaginable even a few months ago, both countries walked together at the opening ceremony under the same unified flag and are fielding a joint women’s hockey team.

If US and North Korean officials do not meet in Pyeongchang, they should at least enter into direct talks as soon as possible in order to prevent the situation from deteriorating further. Washington can lure Pyongyang to the negotiating table by offering security guarantees such as commitments not to try to push for regime change in North Korea or to unify the Korean Peninsula through military force in return for North Korea ceasing all further missile launches and nuclear tests.

Absent negotiations, North Korea will be left to quietly prepare its next move after the Olympics.