The “Peace Olympics”: Will the rapprochement last?

A sudden detente, anchored by the leaders of the two Koreas, has brought a welcome de-escalation of tensions on the Peninsula.

Korea watchers are calling the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics the “Peace Olympics.” “The big story of the 2018 Winter Olympics has been the participation of North Korea and the friendly tone struck by the two countries,” writes Robert Kelly of South Korea’s Pusan National University, “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.”

Then, Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister and the first member of the ruling Kim family to step foot on South Korean soil since 1953, went on an Olympic peace offensive. As Laura Bicker of BBC reports, “It turns out Kim Jong-un does not need to fire off a missile to get the world’s attention. He has a number of far more powerful weapons in his arsenal: his female envoys. And on this latest charm offensive, he saved the best for last: his sister. Kim Yo-jong mesmerized South Korean audiences. As she strode into the presidential palace carrying a handwritten note from her brother, every detail was scrutinized live on television. … You could feel the ripple of excitement as she walked into the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.” “I hope Pyongyang and Seoul get closer in our people’s hearts and move forward the future of prosperous unification,” Kim Yo-jong wrote in South Korea’s presidential guest book.

In her meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Blue House, Kim Yo-jong delivered a personal letter from her brother to invite President Moon to “to visit Pyongyang at an early date.” In response, “it was hardly a surprise that Moon said he would like to make it happen by creating the necessary conditions,” says Tong-Hyung Kim of Associated Press, “Moon had already put a summit offer with Kim Jong-un on the table. The first liberal president in a decade, Moon announced during his inauguration speech last year that he would be willing to visit Pyongyang and meet with Kim Jong-un.”

“North Korea’s proposal for an inter-Korean summit will pave the way for a dramatic advancement in bilateral ties,” writes Koh Byung-joon of South Korea’s Yonhap News, “Analysts say the proposal itself can be considered a breakthrough, heralding the restoration of top-level communication channels to reduce cross-border tensions and improve relations.”

Looking at what happened between the two Koreas in Pyeongchang and Seoul, noted the English Korea Herald, “some might have difficulty believing that until a short while ago, the two were seemingly at each other’s throats, ready to be swept into war in a U.S.-North confrontation over the nuclear crisis. It seems that the two sides have successfully built momentum for arranging the first inter-Korean summit since Moon’s former boss and mentor Roh Moo-hyun and the North Korean leader’s late father, Kim Jong-il, met in Pyongyang ten years ago.”

The question is: Will the recent Pyongyang-Seoul detente last?

There is no guarantee that the Pyongyang-Seoul rapprochement will continue to proceed smoothly. President Moon may actually go to Pyongyang in the coming months, but a summit does not necessarily mean true improvement in relations, given the fundamental ideological, political and economic differences that have separated the two Koreas for more than 65 years. Two previous North-South summits, in 2000 and 2007, did not help to achieve any permanent improved relations.

And it remains uncertain whether a high-level talk between Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un will secure support from other key stakeholders, above all the United States and Japan. As a Korea Herald editorial highlighted, “The festivities and hustle and bustle surrounding North Koreans will be over with the closing of the Olympics. Then the world will again face the cold reality: How will it force or persuade the North to give up its nuclear and missile programs? Inter-Korean dialogue and expanded engagement may be necessary, but it won’t be sufficient for achieving the goal. Much will depend on what course of action Kim Jong-un takes after the Olympics. The best will be-as Moon suggested to his sister-Kim deciding to talk with the United States on a condition Washington could agree to.”

While the hope for detente on the Peninsula remains high, the reality is: the road to a true rapprochement between the two Koreas will not be immediate and easy.

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.