North Korea’s Peace Games

Kim Jong Un tries to drive a wedge between the South and the U.S.


President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shake hands in Seoul, Nov. 7, 2017.
President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in shake hands in Seoul, Nov. 7, 2017. PHOTO: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Talks between North and South Korea Tuesday at the Demilitarized Zone have handed Kim Jong Un a propaganda victory. The two sides agreed that athletes from the North will compete in next month’s Winter Olympics in the South. The talks and the “Olympic truce” allow the young dictator to pose as a man of peace, even as he threatens to annihilate his enemies with nuclear weapons.

This is galling enough, but Kim has his eye on the bigger prize of driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington. In recent days U.S. officials have expressed confidence that this won’t happen because the talks would be limited to the Olympics. But the onus is now on South Korean President Moon Jae-in to make clear that the North can’t divide and conquer.

Kim’s New Year’s Day speech with its proposal of talks with the South was surprising given Pyongyang’s longstanding policy of dealing only with the U.S. on strategic matters. According to the North’s propaganda, Seoul has always been a puppet of the American imperialists. The biggest exception came in 2000, when South Korean President Kim Dae-jung secretly paid the North hundreds of millions of dollars to participate in a summit. That led to a brief period of entente known as the Sunshine Policy, lubricated with copious amounts of aid. 

President Moon wants to revive some of the Sunshine Policy, including an industrial park that let the North earn about $100 million a year from South Korean companies. Contradicting U.S. policy that the North should first curtail its nuclear and missile programs, Mr. Moon has called for direct talks since taking office in May. The North snubbed those overtures as it sprinted to perfect its missiles, but now it thinks it can gain a political advantage by luring the South back into talks.

Mr. Moon now has his wish of talks, and the Trump Administration probably felt it had to oblige because of the Olympics. Seoul asked to postpone routine military exercises for fear the North might use them as an excuse to launch a conventional military strike during the games, and the U.S. acquiesced. In March 2010 the North sank a South Korean ship, killing 46 sailors, and in November of that year it shelled the island of Yeonpyeong in the South, killing two soldiers and two civilians.

North Korea may hope the South will continue talks after the Olympics and break ranks with the U.S. Stricter United Nations sanctions are now coming into force, cutting the flow of fuel imports and preventing North Korea from earning hard currency with exports. That makes the prospect of a reconciliation with South Korea especially appealing.

But even if Mr. Moon wants to help the North, he faces greater constraints than his predecessors. The sanctions restrict his ability to offer monetary aid, and the heightened tension on the Korean Peninsula as a result of the North’s dash to become a nuclear-weapons state has increased the South’s dependence on the U.S. security umbrella.

The U.S. military has announced that the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson and its battle group will deploy off the coast of Korea during the Olympics. Such deployments are a more reliable guarantor of peace than the gestures of a young dictator who pretends to want peace even as he threatens war.

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