Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a CNN contributor and adjunct fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Olympics diplomacy will get its day, even if it comes beneath the shadow of the North Korean nuclear program.
This week, South and North Korean officials will meet in the truce village of Panmunjom for “working-level talks” to “work out details on the North’s participation in next month’s Winter Olympic Games,” South Korea’s unification ministry said Sunday.
Asked on Sunday evening about North Korea, US President Donald Trump noted: “the Olympics, you know about. A lot of things can happen.”
Indeed, as military options are under consideration in Washington and beyond, sport is offering diplomacy a boost. And perhaps the opportunity for opening a dialog that goes well beyond next month’s Games in the resort town of Pyeongchang.
At the very least, it is worth watching to see whether these talks can lead to more talks and perhaps a diplomatic engagement that builds upon itself. And as the talks get underway, they are informed by the experience of Seoul’s summer 1988 Olympics three decades back.
As some who studied the 1988 Olympics have written, “The 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul represented a major missed opportunity.” The North put forth a proposal to “share the Games between North and South Korea, with 50% held in Seoul, and 50% in Pyongyang.”
In the end, after years of discussions and negotiations, no accommodation could be reached. The Seoul Olympics were a widely recognized public relations success for South Korea, laying the groundwork for a nation that has become an economic and internationally respected global player. The Wilson Center’s Sergey Radchenko says that “left to lick their wounds, practically abandoned by their allies, and unable to negotiate with South Korea on anything approaching equal terms, the North Koreans sought assurance of survival in strengthening the role of the military, and in pursuing the nuclear deterrent.”
Fast-forward from 1988 to 2018. Today diplomatic acrobatics have paved the way for North Korea’s taekwondo demonstration team to make its way to Pyeongchang. In the first face-to-face one-on-one talks between South and North Korea in more than two years, held last week, North Korea said yes to sending a national delegation that includes “athletes, cheering and performing-arts squads, press and a ‘high-level delegation’.”
Whether this proves to be only a momentary cooling period between missile tests and heated verbal volleys or a longer lasting ratcheting down of tensions on the peninsula very much remains to be seen. Some analysts worry the North is aiming to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. But as the US undersecretary for public diplomacy, Steve Goldstein, put it, “anything that lowers tensions is a positive development.”
The Olympics and modern-day politics have long been intertwined, and if participation in the former can help lead to quieting tensions in the latter, it is to be welcomed. For even if that lowering of tensions is only temporary, it buys US policymakers time to consider and discuss options while speed skating and skiing grab the world’s attention.
No question exists that South Korea wanted this outcome. Unlike 1988, South Korea’s leaders this time around have been quite public in their desire to give dialog a chance. Seoul labeled this year’s Winter Olympics the “peace games.” And in exchange for Pyongyang agreeing to come to Pyeongchang, South Korea agreed to suspend, for a time, some of its sanctions in order to get the North Koreans to the Games.
“The hosting of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang has provided a brief window to ease Korean Peninsula tensions,” Scott Snyder, senior fellow in Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently. “But South Korea’s President Moon [Jae-in] still must find a way out of its constrained strategic environment and punch above his country’s strategic weight in order to achieve long-term gains. To do so, Moon must translate the opening of a temporary channel for dialogue with Kim Jong Un’s isolated regime and the accompanying momentary pause in North Korean nuclear and missile testing into a window for nuclear dialogue between the United States and North Korea, all while maintaining solidarity of the alliance with the United States on which South Korean security still depends.”
For America, this means that US athletes will share an Olympic Games with North Koreans, citizens living under a regime that a recent report from the International Bar Association argued should be investigated for “crimes against humanity.” Only recently, the UN’s member nations passed a resolution condemning North Korea for “longstanding and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights.”
But it is not human rights violations of North Korean citizens that are galvanizing the world when it comes to Pyongyang, but a nuclear threat facing the region and the United States. And that threat is going nowhere; indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin praised North Korea’s Kim Jong Un recently for having “won this round” and completing his “strategic task” of getting a nuclear weapon and “missiles of global reach.”
Up against this backdrop of nuclear tests and heated Twitter exchanges between Washington and Pyongyang about “Rocket Man” and nuclear “buttons” falls the coming Winter Olympics. And many hope this time will be different from 1988. When talks between Seoul and Pyongyang eventually failed, terror took its place: The North Korean regime brought down a South Korean airliner, killing all 151 people on board.
“It was 1987 and South Korea was preparing to host the Olympic Games in Seoul. North Korea’s leader Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il were determined to stop it,” one of the crime’s perpetrators told the BBC. “I was told by a senior officer that before the Seoul Olympics we would take down a South Korean airliner.”
In 2018, unlike 1988, the outlines of a deal for some level of North Korean participation have been reached. More talks are ahead. And maybe this time will be different. While 1988’s shutout of Pyongyang ended with North Korea’s “humiliation and isolation,” talks now could be the opening shot in a dialog that leads to, at the very least, more talks. No guarantees exist that this path will lead directly to discussion about denuclearization, but neither do contingency planning, sanctions enforcement or diplomacy cease in the interim.
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North Korea has only two Winter Games medals in its history: Each came from speed skating. But the Olympic spirit is not about medals or wins. As Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern-day Olympics, put it, “The important thing in life is not to triumph, but to compete.”
Perhaps this time the competition can confine itself to the ice. And the Pyeongchang opening ceremonies could serve as the opening to a crucial and much farther-reaching exchange of international dialog.