Korean peace calls for Olympic effort

Korean peace calls for Olympic effort

A tiny window of opportunity for rapprochement between North and South Korea has opened up with the two countries agreeing to have their athletes march together under one flag at the opening ceremony of the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea. The two countries will also field a joint women's ice-hockey team, and North Korea has offered to send a 140-member orchestra  to hold concerts there. These are tiny steps, considering the magnitude of issues and severity of tensions that have kept the two Koreas apart. Over the past year, North Korea has carried out several nuclear and missile tests, signalling its capacity to land a nuclear weapon anywhere in the United States. Its 'Supreme Leader' Kim Jong-un has repeatedly threatened war. US President Donald Trump, ostensibly acting on behalf of South Korea has been no less bellicose. With tensions soaring and the possibility of war, even a nuclear one was a clear and present danger. It is amidst this increasingly hopeless situation that South Korea's President Moon Jae-in acted to grab the initiative. He repeatedly extended invitations to North Korea to participate in the Winter Olympics. Pyongyang responded positively and at the recent meeting between the two countries, the proposal for marching their athletes together was discussed and agreed upon.

However, these are early days; anything can happen between now and the start of the Winter Olympics on February 9. Even this attempt at confidence building could get derailed. Of course, much will depend on the intentions of the main conflict parties. It is likely that Pyongyang sees these steps as a way to improve its image; after all, millions across the world will be watching the event. It could be seeking an easing of sanctions. But also, it is possible that Kim Jong-un sees in this an opportunity to embarrass South Korea. He could carry out another nuclear or missile test on the eve of the Winter Olympics. It is possible, too, that South Korea wants to take charge of its own foreign policy, rather than allow the US to dictate how it should deal with Pyongyang. Reunification with the North, which Moon Jae-in strongly supports, will come with a ready nuclear arsenal.

The proposed show of unity between the Koreas at the Winter Olympics could end up being a one-time event. However, it is possible for this event to spark a larger and longer process of building confidence, even peace. That would require support from Korea's neighbours and the rest of the world, especially the US. Trump, in particular, must back off. A massive US-South Korea military exercise scheduled for April should be put off, or even cancelled, if Seoul is indeed committed to peace.

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