If peace diplomacy were an Olympic sport, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, won the Gold Medal hands down, while Vice President Mike Pence crashed and burned.
And that’s a good thing for the possibility of world peace. It increases the likelihood of an eventual diplomatic solution in Korea and the avoidance of a possible war that could kill millions in a conventional war and tens of millions in a nuclear exchange in a matter of days.
The outcome represented more than just media optics. It was substantive.
Trump’s position until now is that no diplomatic talks would be permitted with the North Koreans unless the North Koreans first dismantled the nuclear program that North Korea considers vital to protect the regime’s survival—In other words, no negotiations unless North Korea first surrendered, which was never going to happen.
In the face of Kim Yo-jong’s Olympic peace offensive, the Trump administration’s position has dramatically changed and it now won’t oppose talks between South and North Korea, and even, perhaps, talks which include the United States.
North Korea's Olympic Peace Offensive
Kim Jon-un’s sister may be part of one of the most repressive regimes in the world. But she played the game of soft power at the Olympics with finesse and grace while Pence’s behavior bordered on the embarrassing.
At the opening ceremonies, Pence sat in a box with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, almost directly in front of the North Korean dictator’s sister, whom he never acknowledged, though she was only a few steps away.
When the unified Korean Team including both South and North Koreans made it’s grand in the stadium to a loud standing ovation from the crowd, the entire Presidential box, including both South Korea’s Moon and North Korea’s Kim stood and applauded, except for Pence who noticeably remained seated with a stony-faced look on his face.
Pence came off as petulant and appeared rude to America’s South Korean allies.
At the opening match of the unified South Korean and North Korean women’s hockey team attended by a cheering sold out crowd of thousands, Moon and Kim sat next to each other in a gesture of harmony and afterwards spoke together with the joint Korean team members. Pence was nowhere to be found.
Moon and Kim met several times in public and private. South Korea’s Moon offered a toast, declaring “The world’s attention is on today’s meeting and there are high hope for the North and the South. We have a heavy responsibility.”
A Summit Between North and South?
North Korea’s Kim invited Moon to visit the North for a summit with her brother, Kim Jong-un. President Moon's spokesman responded that South and North Korea should “work together to create the environment to make it happen.” He also encouraged direct diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and North Korea.
Though such talks would violate the Trump administration’s opposition to negotiations unless North Korea first surrenders its weapons program, the Olympic peace offensive by Moon and Kim seems to have forced the Trump administration to reverse course.
Upon departing Korea, Pence told the Washington Post that the U.S. would not oppose a Moon-Kim summit, and might even be open to direct talks between the US and North Korea, while still maintaining strong sanctions.
President Moon is right that careful preparations need to be made in advance of a summit. The real point must be to go beyond mere symbolism and begin a process that can lead to a lasting peace. While small gestures can grease the process, in the end the parties need to think bigger than at any time since the Korean War ended in 1953.
The Elements of a Lasting Peace
As I’ve previously argued in these pages, a permanent peace might include elements like the following:
- A permanent Peace Treaty officially ending the Korean War. Although hostilities ceased in 1953 with a temporary Armistice between North and SOuth, a Peace Treaty was never signed. Technically, the U.S. and North Korea are still at war with each other. Over 65 years after the armed conflict ended, this is just plain silly.
- Security guarantees for North Korea, backed up and enforced by the United States, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, the United Nations, and other members of the international community. This is what the North Korean dictatorship wants more than anything: an enforceable agreement that it will not meet the fate of public shame that was faced Sadaam Hussein in Iraq and Muhammar Ghadafi in Libya.
- In exchange, North Korea would have to agree to strictly limit the number and type of its nuclear weapons and delivery systems, and submit to tough, verifiable inspections to prevent cheating.
- As North Korea demonstrates its adherence to such limitations, economic sanctions would be lifted step by step.
--Somewhere during this process, the United States and North Korea would reestablish diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors.
There’s a long way to go from an Olympic peace offensive to such a lasting peace. But there’s at least the possibility that history will mark the 2018 Olympics in Korea as the start of a permanent peace on the Korean peninsula, just as “ping-pong” diplomacy led to President Nixon reestablishing diplomatic relations with communist China in 1972.
There’s no guarantee of success, but in the wake of the Korean Olympics, things are hell of a lot more hopeful than tweets threatening “fire and fury.”