WASHINGTON — North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, spent 2017 rattling the world with nuclear and long-range missile tests and has promised more of the same in 2018. So it was a surprise when he deftly seized on the Winter Olympics on Tuesday to turn toward diplomacy with Seoul, playing the part of the statesman even while seeking fractures in the seven-decade alliance between South Korea and the United States.
That was followed by an announcement about resumption of military-to-military talks between the two countries — without the United States.
All this is a relief to South Korea’s leader, President Moon Jae-in, who feared the North would find a way — missile launches, terrorism, a nuclear test — to cast a pall over a sports event meant to highlight the South’s emergence as one of the world’s most dynamic economies.
Few in Seoul or Washington believe Kim, though an avid sports fan, is motivated solely by the Olympic spirit. The Winter Games also present him with an ideal opportunity to throw a wrench in President Donald Trump’s threats of military action if the North does not agree to give up its nuclear program.
Along the way, Kim is looking to get some relief from sanctions that are beginning to bite, and to bring China back to its traditional position — that no one should disturb the status quo, even if that means tolerating a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons.
“This was a very smart move and underscores how we are in a long-standing habit of underestimating the North,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute who has spent decades studying North Korea. “If they can punch a hole through the maximum-pressure coalition and it starts to leak, it gives them more room and more time to achieve their objective, which is all about the nuclear program.”
It is a strategy meant to resonate with many South Korean progressives who argue that defusing tensions on the peninsula has to be Seoul’s top priority. And it pointedly excluded the United States, although South Korea insists it will keep the United States in the loop.
By leaving bombast out of his speech last week and even appearing before the cameras in a Western-style suit and tie, Kim clearly wants to be seen as a statesman.
Trump, who has promised to “totally destroy” the North if it puts the United States at risk, has already claimed credit for the new tone. The latest United Nations Security Council sanctions, issued last month, were intended to threaten the North’s energy supplies and its opportunities to earn hard currency, possibly derailing the North’s surprising economic growth.
What Kim is not discussing with the South is the future of his nuclear weapons and missile programs. Many experts fear that is exactly the point: Relief from tightening sanctions or threat of American attack may give his engineers time to perfect a warhead able to hit the continental United States.
The evidence of that came on Tuesday when Ri Son Gwon, the chief North Korean delegate to the talks, protested when South Korea called for the resumption of denuclearization discussions, according to pool reports. And none are scheduled.
To drive home the point Ri said, according to the same reports, “Our cutting-edge weapons, including our hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles, are not targeting our Korean brothers, China or Russia, but the United States.”
Kim has made no secret of his determination to keep his nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. In his New Year’s speech, he described his country’s atomic arsenal as the only thing preventing the United States from starting a war on the Korean Peninsula, boasting of the “nuclear button” on his desk. That led to Trump’s retort that he has “a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”
The mine-is-bigger exchange obscured two more important elements of the speech. Kim told his people to brace themselves for the effects of sanctions, which have led to fuel shortages and significantly higher prices. It was a rare admission that Trump’s campaign was getting to Kim.
Kim also urged the South to break ranks with Washington on the issue of sanctions and begin talks about the Olympics. Moon has been worried about a North Korean disruption of the Winter Games, and his staff members told U.S. officials that South Korea wanted to suspend military exercises with the United States during the Olympics and find a role for the North, which won seven medals in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Senior U.S. officials said they had no choice but to accede to Moon’s appeals. Trump agreed in a Jan. 4 phone call with Moon to suspend the military exercises, and said at Camp David over the weekend that “I’d like to see them getting involved in the Olympics and maybe things go from there.”
The games end in late February. In Washington, it is widely believed that no military action would happen until afterward, in the event that diplomatic routes fail.
The Pentagon has drawn up extensive plans, including a punch-in-the-nose strategy against the North that would involve taking out a missile, and a much broader attack on the missile and nuclear sites. But both Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson have argued internally that it would be nearly impossible to contain any retaliation, officials have said.
The State Department welcomed Tuesday’s talks at the Demilitarized Zone, but Heather Nauert, the department’s spokeswoman, said South Korean officials “will ensure North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics does not violate the sanctions.”
Both the North and South have engaged in this dance before.
Twenty-six years ago, just as the Soviet Union was disappearing, the countries signed a treaty of reconciliation and nonaggression that promised to formally bring an end to the Korean War, keep the Korean Peninsula free of nuclear weapons and re-establish telephone lines, mail and economic exchanges. Most of that agreement has never been realized.
But if Kim and Moon were to move to revitalizing that agreement, they would greatly complicate Trump’s military threat and could well undermine the international effort to get China to further tighten sanctions against Pyongyang.
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“It gives the Chinese government the chance to do what it wishes to do: Pull back on the pressure that the Americans are intent on building,” Eberstadt noted.
Any provocation from the North, especially another intercontinental missile test or an atmospheric test of a nuclear weapon, could change that dynamic. And that would work to the advantage of the United States, which knows that testing is critical to Kim’s ambition to prove, beyond doubt, that he can target American cities.
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The core of the debate in Seoul is whether Kim’s overture is a tactical move, or represents an entirely new strategy.
“His peace offensive is leading to the first steps in a transition from confrontation and rising tensions to easing tensions and peace on the peninsula,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
But if his intent was to divide the South from the United States, Kim has his moment.
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South Korea’s ethnic nationalism has always been a major factor in its politics; in the late 1980s, there were more protests against the United States’ military presence in the South than against the North’s threats. And for those South Koreans longing for a thaw after months of tensions, Kim could hardly have chosen a better way than through sports.
Despite the Koreas’ long-standing enmity, South Koreans often cheer for the North’s athletes in international competition. As early as 1964, the two Koreas discussed fielding a joint Olympic team, an idea that has resurfaced over the decades.
In 2000, however — the year the two Koreas held their first summit meeting — athletes from both countries marched together at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. They did so again at the Athens Games in 2004, carrying a blue and white flag representing a unified Korea. Their athletes last marched together at the Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China, in 2007.
“I want to see the same glory again,” Moon said in June, suggesting that the two nations march together in Pyeongchang. On Tuesday, South Korean officials said the two sides were close to agreeing that they would do so.This article originally appeared in The New York Times.