Last January, both North and South Korea agreed to have high-level talks to discuss North Korea’s possible participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Optimistically, both sides agreed that not only would the North Korean team participate, but that they will participate as one team for the first time. The international reaction to North Korea’s charm offensive has been mostly negative. For example, Japanese Foreign Minister Kono warned that North Korea’s charm offensive is a tactic to buy itself more time to continue its nuclear missile program. However, the recent developments in its weapons programs and economic situation may suggest that North Korea is indeed sincere in creating peace with South Korea.
History of Sports Diplomacy between Both Koreas
Sports diplomacy is not new between the two states. From 1990 to 2006, both Koreas would engage with each other through sports. North and South Korea would take part in various sports matches as one team, but some of the most notable events, which brought a new development in inter-Korean sports relations are highlighted below.
Sports diplomacy was the start of improved inter-Korean relations from the 1990s to early 2000s. During the 1990s, North and South Korea opened the Kaesong Industrial Complex, encourage mingling between North and South Koreans in the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region in North Korea, and had family reunions for families that were separated by the war, among other things. However, despite inter-Korean relations improving during this time, North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and provocations discouraged any further progress. Following the 2006 nuclear weapons test, sports diplomacy ceased as well as any progress on improving relations between these two nations.
North Korea’s reasoning for hindering progress in inter-Korean relations in the mid-2000s may stem from its concern towards the United States. After Soviet Abandonment in the late-1980s, North Korea was considerably vulnerable to the United States. If war were to occur, North Korea would surely lose. The United States, unfortunately, did not create a sense of security for North Korea, which consequently resulted in the Kim regime choosing to channel its resources towards survival over improving inter-Korean relations.
North Korea’s Reasoning for its Sudden Engagement with South Korea
After years of provocations and unwillingness to abandon its weapons programs, North Korea’s sudden charm offensive is suspicious. Yet, North Korea’s attitude suggests that it may indeed sincere in relieving tensions in improving relations with South Korea. Robert Carlin and Joel Wit argued that North Korea is uncharacteristically showing respect to the South Korean government. For example, North Korea is respecting South Korea by referring to the country by its official name and its leaders with their respective title among other things.
Now that North Korea has claimed to have completed its weapons program, it makes sense for the regime to pursue improving inter-Korean relations so that it can benefit economically. Previously, North Korea received a considerable amount of cash flow due to improved inter-Korean relations during the 1990s and early 2000s. For example, the Kaesong Industrial Complex brought in a total of $560 million dollars. However, ultimately its insecurity towards the United States resulted in it pursuing weapons development rather than continuing to better its relationship with South Korea. Now, with an effective deterrent, North Korea may feel secure enough to engage with South Korea so that it may once again enjoy the economic benefits that improved inter-Korean relations once brought it.
The Kaesong Industrial Complex
Ultimately, we will not know North Korea’s true intentions until after the 2018 Winter Olympics. If North Korea is truly sincere in improving relations with South Korea, the Kim regime will have to continue to show goodwill towards South Korea as it has this past January.
Unwarranted Pessimism Towards North Korea from the South
After agreeing to hold high-level talks, Many South Koreans have shown a great amount of pessimism towards North Korea and the budding relationship. Protesters primarily from the far-right, have burned images of Kim Jong-Un and opposition leaders from the Liberty Korea Party have been critical of the Moon administration for giving up too much to appease the North Korean regime. While the majority (81.2 percent) of South Koreans welcome North Korea’s participation in the upcoming Olympics, any form of criticism from South Korea may be large enough to disrupt progress in inter-Korean relationship building. This could be seen recently, when the North Korean government canceled an inter-Korean event over negative press coverage.
After years of conflict, it is understandable that South Koreans are pessimistic and suspicious towards North Korea’s charm. Nevertheless, it is important for South Koreans to accept North Korea’s charm offensive at face value. South Koreans have more to gain than lose by being patient with North Korea. If North Korea is sincere, there is potential for inter-Korean relations to move in the right direction. If North Korea is not sincere then nothing changes between the two. By not giving North Korea a chance to prove itself, South Koreans may be missing out on an opportunity to establish highly desired peace in the Korean Peninsula.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, sports diplomacy failed because North Korea was concerned about a possible American invasion. It chose to develop its military defense rather than improve inter-Korean relations despite the economic benefits that would come from the relationship. Now that it has developed a sense of security through a powerful deterrent, North Korea may now be looking to improve its economic situation by improving relations with South Korea. For this reason, South Koreans should be open minded and give North Korea a realistic opportunity to prove itself. In a worst case scenario, South Korea continues to pressure the regime due to its continued provocations.
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Casey is a graduate student in the Masters of International Policy and Practice program at the Elliott School of International Affairs, with a regional focus in the Asia-Pacific, particularly North Korea. He has experience in researching and writing about economic and developmental issues related to North Korea.