Most people love peace and sports. But the sudden rapprochement between North and South Korea over the Winter Olympics pretty much trashes most norms of diplomacy.
Diplomatic talks are not usually offered with states that the international community has admonished for its arms programs, unless they make a concession first.
Indeed, the initial outreach to Iran (which doesn’t even have nuclear weapons) by the Obama administration was secretive; to be sure, no talks began without the proper concessionary framework.
Instead, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has tested a long-range ballistic missile in the direction of Japan and is hell-bent on his pursuit of ever more powerful and miniaturized nuclear weapons.
And after some button-measuring with the White House, the South Koreans – who live daily in Seoul with the threat of real war and destruction from the North – have presumably determined that the best bet for a peaceful Games is to talk up calm with the North. North Korea doesn’t even have to discuss its nuclear weapons program at all as part of these talks.
They have even managed to get the US to delay joint exercises with the South. Substantial drills – involving 17,000 Americans and 300,000 South Koreans – usually happen in March or April, but none will occur during the Winter Games. The North sees these as a provocation and nobody needs to rock the boat during the sporting festival. Still, the threat of North Korean force is a major cause of this delay.
And with that – and the spontaneous photo opportunity ushered in by the North during official talks with the South on Tuesday – comes a substantial moment of legitimacy for Kim. Essentially, that moment acknowledges that a nuclear-armed North Korea, which intermittently tests long-range missiles, is the new normal.
Yes, this moment may be short-lived. Once the North Korean skaters have competed, and their parade team twirled their stuff, Pyongyang may go back to its old “rogue” rocket-testing ways.
But the regime’s leaders have learned that the world – and America’s ally in the South, with whom the North is technically still at war with – requires no concessions in exchange for the legitimacy conferred by peace talks.