North Korea has emerged as the early favourite to grab one of the Winter Olympics’ most important medals: the diplomatic gold.
That is the assessment of a former South Korean government minister and political experts who say the North has used the Games to drive a wedge between South Korea and its US ally and to potentially ease pressure on its sanctions-crippled state.
In barely a month since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un surprised the world and said his nation was ready to join the Games, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has delayed military exercises, feted Kim’s sister at the Pyeongchang Olympics and given conditional consent to a bilateral summit in the North.
“North Korea clearly appears to be winning the gold,” said Kim Sung-han, who served as Korea’s vice foreign minister in 2012-2013 and who now teaches at Seoul’s Korea University.
“Its delegation and athletes are getting all the spotlight, and Kim Jong-un’s sister is showing elegant smiles before the South Korean public and the world. Even for a moment, it appears to be a normal state.”
US Vice President Mike Pence, who attended Friday’s opening ceremony along with the North Koreans, said “no daylight” existed between the United States, South Korea and Japan on the need to isolate North Korea.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said more important would be how Pyongyang behaved after the Olympics. It had shown no interest so far in negotiating over demands to give up its nuclear and missile programmes.
Douglas Paal, a former senior US diplomat under previous Republican administrations, said North Korea held the propaganda edge for now because, “it’s tough not to get caught up in the emotions of an Olympics event”.
The warm North-South body language at the Games not only fanned talk of a split between Seoul and Washington, it contrasted with a cold encounter between South Korea and Japan, an ally in US-led efforts to pressure North Korea.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who looked uncomfortable at times during the opening ceremony, irritated his hosts by telling the South Korean leader that joint South Korea-US military drills should be promptly resumed after the Games.
North Korea is under a heavy UN sanctions regime which was originally targeted at stopping the proliferation of arms and nuclear and missile technologies, but has become more all-encompassing after its accelerated missile testing.
After years of ineffective implementation, those sanctions may have begun to finally bite, which, according to a Japanese government official and experts, helps explain why Kim Jong-un agreed to send a national team and his sister to the Olympics.
In Pyeongchang, though, the two Koreas avoided talk of sanctions and basked instead in Olympic goodwill, which was nowhere more evident than on Saturday night when a joint Korean women’s ice hockey team took to the ice.
It inspired an American member of the International Olympic Committee to call for the team, which included 12 North Korean players, to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But will the bonhomie continue after the Games? That remains the million dollar question. Atmospherics only have a temporary effect but for permanent peace to return they should be followed up with more concrete steps.
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