Analysis: As Olympics begin, 2 Koreas navigate an odd moment
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) On Friday night, the world will witness a truly extraordinary moment: An Olympics convening in South Korea with the participation of its nuclear rival, North Korea.
And against that backdrop of athletics and pomp, a cascade of political events unfolds even as the region’s uneasiness about potential nuclear war continues unabated.
Two of The Associated Press’ top Koreas journalists – Seoul bureau chief Foster Klug and Pyongyang bureau chief Eric Talmadge – are in Pyeongchang to cover the political maneuverings around the Olympics. On Thursday evening, we asked them to sit at a table across from each other and consider how the Olympics-related political maneuverings are playing in their areas of responsibility.
SOUTH KOREA: WHAT WILL THEY MAKE OF ALL THIS?
Just weeks ago North Korea was threatening its southern rival with war, something it has done with numbing persistence since they fought, with Chinese and American help, one of the bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century.
So imagine the confusion, the wonder, the pervasive sense of the surreal that will greet South Koreans on Saturday when they watch their democratically elected president playing host to North Korean royalty, the granddaughter of the man who ordered the 1950 invasion of the South.
After decades mired in a standoff that has at times, especially over the last year, seemed ready to spiral into another Korean War, there will be North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, sitting down to lunch with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. It might even be in the presidential mansion in the capital Seoul, not far from where commandos sent by the Kim kids’ grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, were slain during a failed assassination attempt on a South Korean dictator.
Though many here either sympathize or hate the North, most South Koreans pride themselves on their indifference to actions by Pyongyang that the rest of the world considers outrageous provocations.
But even the most jaded will struggle to ignore the ruling Kim family dynasty’s introduction to the South and attendance at the Pyeongchang Olympics, the most important moment on the world stage for South Korea in years.
Social media was afire Thursday with comments from the curious, the incensed and the stunned.
Will she meet Ivanka Trump? Shinzo Abe, the leader of North Korean archrival Japan? U.S. Vice President Mike Pence? Don’t forget, one poster said, that she’s the granddaughter of the man responsible for mass South Korean deaths during the war.
The deep divide here between left and right could be seen in two snap editorials.
The liberal Hankyoreh newspaper played up her direct influence on Kim Jong Un, and interpreted the trip as an attempt by North Korea to reset its international relations and improve ties with both Seoul and Washington.
On no, said the conservative Munhwa Ilbo: The visit is a cynical attempt to weaken international sanctions over the North’s weapons programs and water down the U.S.-South Korean alliance.
Maybe nothing substantive will come of the talks. Or maybe North Korea will start testing missiles and nukes again immediately after the Games end.
But even if it’s only symbolic, even if it’s only ephemeral, the image of a member of North Korea’s ruling dynasty in South Korean territory will resonate in both parts of the peninsula.
And in the end, what she says and does may be less significant than the simple fact of who, and where, she is: A member of the House of Kim, the family that has been The Enemy for most South Koreans since the day they were born, standing on the soil of the South.
– Foster Klug, AP bureau chief in Seoul
NORTH KOREA: STRAIGHT FROM THE KIM JONG UN PLAYBOOK
When North Korea does something that seems totally out of the blue, look at it from Kim Jong Un’s perspective.
Sometimes, the in-your-face approach – the missile launches and all that – is great. It gets Washington’s attention. It makes your adversaries think twice before pushing back. It makes the divide between bluff and credible, scary threat all the more difficult to discern.
But being aggressive all the time is costly. And, when you’ve got the weaker hand, it’s dangerous. You have to know when to switch things up.
That’s exactly what Kim is doing by sending his younger sister to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. It’s a classic Kim move.
She’s one of his closest confidants. She’s family and can be trusted. By sending her, Kim is assured of making a big splash with both South Korea’s still relatively new administration and with the South Korean public in general. For good reason, both harbor pretty deep distrust of the North. But they also nurse at least some frustration over the hard-line approach toward Pyongyang that U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed over the past year.
The Kim playbook, always, is to exploit such frustrations. The Olympics have presented an opening.
With Kim Yo Jong now expected to not only attend the Olympics opening ceremony but to also attend a luncheon with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Washington’s main guest at the games, Vice President Mike Pence, risks becoming something of an angry uncle figure.
In sharp contrast with the ”for-us-by-us-detente” message that Kim Jong Un is pushing – while explicitly telling the U.S. to mind its own business – Pence’s demands for the North to abandon nuclear ambitions before any talks seem all the more harsh.
Pence’s decision to bring along Fred Warmbier, the father of a college student who died shortly after being released from North Korean custody, is also cast in a more severe light by Kim’s maneuvers – no matter how calculated or opportunistic they may turn out to be.
So the message of the past 48 hours from North Korea might be described like this: Hey, America. Your move.
– Eric Talmadge, AP bureau chief in Pyongyang
Klug has covered the Koreas since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at (at)apklug. Talmadge has covered North Korea since 2013. Follow him on Twitter at (at)erictalmadge.