(ATR) South Korea President Moon Jae-In may see the fruits of his "Peace Olympics," vision play out in the ultimate prize: a face-to-face meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Last week, South Korean National Security Advisor Chung Eui-Yong made a historic announcement at the White House saying President Trump agreed to a summit with Kim by the end of May. The White House quickly walked back any idea of an unconditional meeting, saying certain preconditions must be met for a summit that is to be determined.
During the 2018 Olympics President Moon used the Games to secure diplomatic meetings with a number of world leaders. The most high profile meetings came from the United States and North Korea.
The United States sent two envoys to the 2018 Winter Olympics to engage with Moon. Vice President Mike Pence led the U.S. delegation for the Olympics Opening Ceremony. Ivanka Trump, President Trump’s daughter, led the delegation for the Closing Ceremony. Both delegations avoided speaking with the high profile North Korean delegation during the Games, but met extensively with Moon.
North Korea sent more than 500 individuals as part of its PyeongChang 2018 delegation, including Kim’s sister Kim Yo-Jong. The visit marked the first time any of the ruling Kim family traveled to South Korea. After the Olympics, South Korea returned the diplomatic favor by sending a high ranking delegation including Chung to the North. The delegation agreed to host an inter-Korean summit in April, the first since 2007, before meeting with Trump.
"Yes, the Olympics set the stage for exploratory talks," Lee Sung-Yoon, a Korean-Studies Professor at Tufts University said to Around the Rings. "Seoul’s eagerness to engage and Pyongyang’s willingness to be engaged and seek a reprieve from sanctions led to this moment. Whether the summit advances peace in the region or only Kim’s agenda remains to be seen."
Still, it would be naive to say the Olympics as an event were the catalyst for diplomatic actions, says Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department diplomat who focused on Korea. Rather, the event is just one of many convenient gatherings on a crowded international calendar ripe with diplomatic opportunities.
"The calendar is the diplomat’s chessboard," Oba said to ATR. "How countries position themselves throughout the year often comes down to what’s on the schedule, what opportunities open up because of that, and how that sets up the next thing.
"Sporting events are a special part of the diplomatic chessboard because they are the only events that don’t usually condition participation on political participation, and there is a spirit of setting aside differences to appreciate athletic competition. The Olympics is the biggest opportunity in that category because practically the whole world is there."
Oba believes that the attitude of the U.S. delegation to avoid meeting with the North Koreans may have created an opening for future talks. Diplomacy, like sport, is about picking your spots strategically, and the U.S. ceding the spotlight in PyeongChang allowed Moon’s administration to work on sussing out North Korea’s intentions.
Now, the process of dialogue must shift to taking advantage of the rare thawing of relations between North and South Korea. The U.S. has limited time, but must come up with both short-term and long-term roadmaps for solutions on the Korean Peninsula, says Sangsoo Lee, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm-based Institute for Security & Development Policy. While certainly risky, a summit could provide a "good starting point" for tangible progress, said Lee.
"The fundamental moves were made by political decisions of the key actors," Lee said. "Nevertheless, the Olympics have been facilitating the recent moves by providing a positive environment, such as refraining from further nuclear and missile tests, postponing of joint U.S.-South military exercises and high ranking inter-Korean contacts. Therefore, the Olympics have contributed to making a peaceful environment as a diplomatic tool and crisis management.
"In the next two months, the parties should prepare for a long-term and phased roadmap process for full scale denuclearization, which would specify mutually agreed on levels of reciprocity and a sequencing of measures."
Even amid the apparent breakthrough in negotiations, not all experts agree that a potential face-to-face summit may result in anything other than the continued stalemate on the peninsula. Any meeting between the U.S. and North Korea is "premeditated and certainly not unprecedented," says Lee Sung-Yoon. Now, the U.S. will have to work hard to ensure past summits do not repeat themselves.
"If Trump has the guts to tell Kim straight in his face, "Mr. Kim: Tear down the walls of your gulags," his meeting with the cruel dictator may in time morph into a symbolic moment," Lee said. "But if Trump falls for Kim’s trap and prematurely relaxes sanctions and goes overboard on the bonhomie—thus, legitimating the world’s worst tyrant—then the meeting will be remembered as yet another bleak, embarrassing moment in the annals of U.S. diplomacy vis-à-vis Pyongyang."
Written by Aaron Bauer
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