'Olympic charm offensive': A North Korean thaw?

Mohamed Gomaa Gebali , Friday 23 Feb 2018

With its participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics, Pyongyang appears to have softened its positions. Mohamed Gomaa Gebali examines whether this thaw will last

North and South Korean teams
North Korean women's ice hockey players pose with their South Korean counterparts at the South Korea's national training center on Jan. 25, 2018, in Jincheon, South Korea. (Photo: AP)

Although North Korean missile tests have not stopped, 2018 has witnessed a remarkable development in inter-Korean relations, an upsurge in contacts between North Korean officials and neighbouring countries, as well as leaks about attempts to arrange contact between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump.

These developments are preliminary indications that North Korea has pursued a policy of appeasement towards its southern neighbour and Asian countries, which has raised multiple questions about the reasons for this rapprochement and its sustainability.

Pyongyang’s appeasement policy is a litmus test to regional and international powers whether the future of relations will lead to escalation or further convergence.


The big story of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea has been the participation of North Korea and the friendly tone struck by the two countries.

As the games began in Pyeongchang, the South Korean and North Korean athletes walked in the opening ceremony as a joint team.

It was a moment heavy in symbolism, with their shared flag a neutral image of a “unified” Korean peninsula on a white backdrop.

Then, Kim Yo-jong — the sister of Kim Jong-un — went on a so-called Olympic charm offensive, a joint women’s ice hockey team played, and a squad of North Korean cheerleaders enthralled audiences around the world.

The weight of expectations based on unusually friendly words has certainly been high, while widespread news coverage — both in South Korea and around the world — has seen suggestions of a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.

South Korea’s liberal media has spoken of an “Olympic spirit” smoothing talks with the North, as has the liberal administration of President Moon Jae-in.

But not everyone is quite so happy. Conservatives are unnerved, with editorials in South Korea’s right-wing media regularly arguing against conceding too much to Pyongyang in any discussions.

One concern is that the North could ask for a halt to joint South Korean and US military exercises, in exchange for a vague promise of a freeze to its missile or nuclear programmes, on which it will then renege.


North Korea has recently pursued diplomacy based on calculated escalation towards the United States in parallel with appeasement and calm in its relations with neighbouring countries to end the regional isolation imposed on it, which some analysts called an “appeasement policy”.

The main reasons for the appeasement approach are as follows:


South Korean President Moon Jae-in follows the “sunshine policy” aimed at promoting inter-Korean economic and political communication to bring peace to the region.

It is worth mentioning that the implementation of this policy has been significantly reduced since the end 1990s as South Korean political leaders adopted Washington’s hard line towards Pyongyang, most of whom refused to hold talks with North Korea.

The Korean people have accepted President Moon Jae-in’s move to hold talks with North Korea because of his popularity. He came to power after President Park Jiwen Hai was dismissed from office on corruption charges. In contrast, Moon Jae-in has a long history of achievements in the field of human rights protection and anti-corruption, and thus gained the confidence of the people.


Some are calling for North Korea’s participation in the Olympic Games on a freeze-for-freeze basis; before agreement on the participation of North Korea, Seoul agreed with the US to suspend joint military exercises during the games.

As well, the presence of participants from North Korea in this event will prevent any provocative moves; it will calm the fears of international delegations and discourage them from not participating because of security concerns, especially as France announced in September 2017 that it has a range of security concerns that could prevent it from attending the event.


South Korea believes that US is ready to abandon them, especially after the lifting of the Trump slogan “America First,” in addition to threats and racist statements that are characterised by humiliation and aloofness, so the protection of the US is no longer guaranteed.


China, a major supporter of North Korea, has taken a decision to ban the export of some petroleum products to Pyongyang and to ban the import of some textiles after the Security Council issued a new set of sanctions against North Korea in September 2017.

China banned the importation of iron, lead and marine products in August 2017. The decline in Chinese support for its traditional ally is due to its realisation that North Korea’s nuclear programme has threatened Asian security in an unprecedented manner as a result of ongoing missile tests and missile launches towards Japan, and the development of missiles to reach the American mainland.

In addition, China’s dissatisfaction with Kim Jong-un’s management of the country, the removal and killing of many officials, to rule alone, and his father’s eagerness to sit at the negotiating table to score economic gains.

On the other hand, Kim Jong-un’s diplomatic channels followed an approach that angered his closest allies. North Korea found itself in real danger as a result of the increasing pace of sanctions and the decline of support from its strong ally. It had no other option than appeasement, even if temporary.

Perhaps this time is different and the North will make real concessions — in the Olympic spirit — to jump-start talks and overcome global scepticism about its intentions.

But it is more likely that it will try to separate South Korea from the US, playing on the deep dislike in South Korea for President Trump.

There is also the possibility that it will make demands that the South can never meet — such as its recent request for the return of defectors.

So, while the hope remains that things will be different after the Olympics, the reality is that it is better not to have high hopes.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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