Seoul wants Olympic momentum to lead to US-North Korea talks

South Korea promises to ensure North's participation will not affect sanctions

South Korea has said it will "work hard" to build on the momentum from inter-Korean talks ahead of the Winter Olympics to bring North Korea and the US around a table to resolve the nuclear standoff on the peninsula.

The North agreed last week to take part in the Pyeongchang games, which will take place about 80km south of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, easing tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programmes.

The two Koreas will march under a unified Korea flag, and will field a joint women’s ice hockey team. The North will also send cheerleaders, a taekwondo team, musical and cultural ambassadors and a large troupe of officials.

“We will focus our diplomatic capacity on inducing North Korea and the US into a dialogue process so that it could create a virtuous cycle of inter-Korean talks resulting in North Korea-US talks,” the foreign ministry in Seoul said on Friday, quoted by the Yonhap news agency.


Foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha said Seoul would ensure the North’s participation did not defy sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

In a reminder of the delicacy of the situation, satellite imagery appeared to show North Korea preparing for a large military parade, possibly to mark the 70th anniversary of its military on February 8th, the eve of the games.

While it's generally recognised that inter-Korean contacts are important, the crisis can ultimately only be resolved by US-North Korean talks, with backing and input from South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

Cultural performances

Leading the delegation to prepare the cultural performances around the Pyeongchang games will be Hyon Song-wol, leader of the all-female western-style Moranbong band, and reputedly ex-girlfriend of Kim Jong-un. She becomes the first senior official from the North to visit the South proper since 2014, not including talks on the southern side of the DMZ.

The photographs of preparations for a parade were carried on the NK News website, and will be a sharp reminder of the North’s newly enhanced military status.

The US state department reconfirmed it would not make contact with North Korean officials on the sidelines of the games, being held from February 9th-25th.

Celeste Arrington, assistant professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said the positives from the week's events were that inter-Korean talks might deter missile tests in the short term and had opened channels of communication.

The principle of solving the divided peninsula's problems internally among Koreans has been openly stated since 1972 "and is a legacy of centuries-old perceptions that Korea is a 'shrimp among whales' with little control over its own destiny", said Ms Arrington. The fact the US still doesn't have an ambassador to South Korea is not helping with the uncertainty, but relations are solid right now, with President Moon Jae-in in regular contact with Donald Trump and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Media reports

“Media reports of daylight between Seoul and Washington are exaggerated. International and other nations’ sanctions against the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] DPRK also limit engagement,” she said.

Many neighbouring countries, including China and Japan, have yet to say whether they will send their leaders to the games.

Jennifer Lind, associate professor at Dartmouth College, sees the Olympic gesture as a shrewd attempt by Pyongyang to widen the wedge between the doves in Seoul and Washington's more hawkish administration.

“This gesture should in no way lead observers to conclude that a resolution on the peninsula is forthcoming,” she said. “It’s a lovely symbol, and it points to at least a modicum of willingness to co-operate with each other. But its significance shouldn’t be overstated,” said Ms Lind.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing