The world will watch nearly 100 nations participate in 102 separate events during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea next month. All eyes will be on The Republic of Korea (ROK) and The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as athletes from South and North Korea march under one flag. This international sports event could be a constructive early step toward solving the nuclear conundrum on the Korean Peninsula.
This is the not the first time that Seoul and Pyongyang have shared the international stage under one standard. Both countries arrived under one cloth in the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games and again in the 2006 Winter Games as part of the wildly unsuccessful Sunshine Policy, which served as a basis for South Korea’s foreign policy toward its neighbors in the North, between 1998 and 2007.
The DPRK (North Korea) first participated in the winter Olympics in 1964 and has participated in every summer Olympic game since 1972, except when it followed the Soviet Union’s lead in boycotting the 1984 games. Although the Korean War (1950-53) ended in an armistice and not a peace treaty, diplomatic overtures like the unified appearances at the Olympics continue. Sadly, North Korea’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction have been more successful than the diplomacy intended to prevent it from becoming a nuclear state.
Just as ping-pong diplomacy created a positive new dynamic between Communist China and the United States, Olympic diplomacy may become an early public step toward a much-needed resolution. President Trump deserves credit for incentivizing the Kim regime to reach out to the South, a result of pressure brought about by an expansion of both sanctions and strategic communications.
After more than six decades of diplomatic stagnation, an unprecedented nexus of factors have brought us to this moment when the heat and pressure are at a boiling point. The bright focus of the global political community is directed at the very real problem—and prospect—of a nuclear incident or conflict. As such, any reasonable measure, such as a joint Olympic Korean team, should be treated as a viable opportunity toward a meaningful resolution.
Now is the time to build upon this unexpected dynamic productively, thoughtfully, and with all deliberate speed.
Kim Jong-un plainly feels a need to defend his regime. It would not be a precondition for realistic talks about integrating North Korea into the community of nations for the United States to unilaterally affirm that the state of war between the two countries is over, and that it if Kim decommissioned his nuclear weapons, the state of peace would remain in place.
Is it time to send a senior, respected U.S. envoy to reside in Pyongyang and conduct face-to-face discussions to further convince North Korea that if it removes its nuclear weapons, relations with the United States and the world would rapidly improve? In itself, the physical presence of such a person would assure the North Koreans that the United States desires to resolve this issue diplomatically while preserving that military force is always an option. This could be the foundation for diplomacy at its best—clear, flexible, and thoughtful.
Consider this: If North Korea is allowed to continue its nuclear weapons program, the Japanese and South Koreans will likely feel compelled to begin to build advanced nuclear weapons of their own. For both Japan and South Korea, such nuclear programs would be intended to enforce a mutually assured destruction paradigm to prevent even the most radical North Korean leader dictators from using that country’s nuclear weapons against them.
But if Japan becomes a nuclear power, China will undoubtedly feel a need to expand its own nuclear weapon systems. In the meanwhile, Iran and other nations will look on as North Korea “gets away with” its nuclear program’s development, and tit-for-tat nuclear proliferation within Gulf states may follow. Why does this matter to every global citizen? Simply put, the world will lose control of the massive amounts of fissile material being developed, and somewhere soon a nuclear device will change the world in ways much more dramatically and catastrophically than 9/11.
Now that an Olympic stage is set for engagement, coupled with a re-opened hotline between North and South, let’s then see if realism can be met with realism and forge a path forward for a denuclearized Korean Peninsula where all its citizens live in peace and prosperity, unthreatening and unthreatened.
William J. Parker is the COO of the EastWest Institute and a retired senior Naval officer. Steven S. Honigman serves on the Board of Directors at the EastWest Institute and is a former General Counsel of the United States Navy.