North Korea has been on the headline every now and then whenever there is either a joint military exercise between South Korea and the United States or a nuclear test by its regime. It may seem as if this country is on a suicidal path for testing its nuclear weapons ignoring the sanctions being imposed by the United Nations.
However, its leadership is not senseless. It knows what it is doing, and it will continue to do so in defiance with the international community as long as it feels that its security is not guaranteed. North Korea will never abandon its nuclear program. This is the ultimate weapon from the eyes of its leadership.
Any attempt to force Pyongyang to do so is futile. There are reasons behind this pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Every time a nuclear test is conducted, a new sanction is introduced against North Korea. Regardless, the nuclear ambition continues.
The presidency of Donald Trump in the United States has been advocating for “maximum pressure” against the dynastic regime of Kim Jong Un. War of words has been going on for quite a while. Trump called North Korean supreme leader as Little Rocket Man while North Korea fired back at Trump calling him a dotard and a lunatic.
These exchanges are neither helpful nor diplomatic. Yet, to say that an all-out nuclear war between North Korea and the US could come out of the war of words seems to be unrealistic. Pyongyang would not risk a war while its nuclear program has not reached full capacity. Washington would also not risk drawing China into the fray.
To the surprise of many, North Korea changed its provocative tone and immediately executed what some call as “charm offensive”. What are the reasons behind this change of approach? What have been the reactions of North Korea’s neighboring countries?
Joining Winter Olympics
North Korea has sent more than 200 cheerleaders to South Korea as part of its participation in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. This “army of beauties” are closely monitored and prohibited from speaking with South Korean individuals.
The Korean Unification Flag was used instead of North and South Korean flag as a symbol of unity in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. A joint-team in women’s ice hockey was comprised of North and South Korean athletes.
Some believe that the Olympics event would be safer with the North Korean participation. In the past, there have been Pyongyang’s attempts to sabotage the Games through threat or bombing attack such as in the case of 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.
Kim Yo Jong, 30, is one of the North Korean delegates traveling to the South. She is the younger sister of Kim Jong Un. Sending such high delegation to South Korea is extremely rare. This is the first time since the end of the Korea War in 1953 that a member of the Kim family came to the South.
Kim Yo Jong is a prominent figure in Pyongyang’s leadership. North Korea appears to be extending an olive branch to Seoul for cooperation and peace. It is too early to say whether this is the true intention or deception.
North Korea’s Possible Motives
North Korea may be attempting to alienate South Korea from the United States. Drawing a wedge between the two allies will pull Seoul closer to a more productive relationship with its northern neighbor. This move does not serve US interest in Asia Pacific region. Therefore, it may be a Pyongyang’s attempt to create a perception of US decline in its influence in the region.
Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong has handed over a signed letter from her brother to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in during their meeting in Seoul inviting him to visit North Korea.
The ruling elite in Pyongyang could have another reason for warming up with its Southern neighbor. In April, joint military drill between the US and South Korea will begin. Kim Jong Un may attempt to convince Seoul to halt this looming drill which will include “decapitation strike” maneuver against the North Korean leadership.
It still remains to be seen if South Korea will eventually decide to delay the military drill or proceed as planned. If President Moon Jae-in decides to delay the joint drill, relationship with the US could sour. If he decides to proceed, the warming up the atmosphere on the Korean peninsula will be thrown out of the window. North Korea will once again return to its old tactic of using threats.
This could be North Korea’s real intention all along. It may want to force South Korea to choose between cooperation with the US or with Pyongyang. President Moon Jae-in will have to decide which way his government decides to act.
Additionally, North Korea might want to weaken the international support for sanctions against its regime by giving the impression that the country is a peace-loving state ready for cooperation with its rival in the South. If South Korea could work jointly with its Northern counterpart, why should the international community perceive it as a threat? This could be a calculated move by Pyongyang.
Reactions of South Korea’s Allies
Japan has said that it would not fall for North Korea’s “charm offensive”. It has also warned international community against Pyongyang’s strategy. The relationship between Japan and South Korea is sometimes plagued by historical issues especially the Japanese occupation of Korea and the issue of Korean comfort women for the Japanese army during the Second World War.
In any case, Seoul warming up with Pyongyang is keeping Tokyo uneasy. North Korea’s nuclear program also threatens the security of Japan.In a number of occasions, North Korea flew its long-range missiles over Japan. Therefore, the Japanese leadership does not want to see any relaxation in the isolation of the hermit kingdom.
The United States under Donald Trump presidency still pursues the hardline policy toward the North. It aims for denuclearization of North Korea. It wants an end to Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear development programs. Trump vowed before the U.N. General Assembly to “totally destroy” North Korea. Therefore, the Winter Olympics would not change Washington’s policies.
Vice President Mike Pence had attended the Olympics event and was seated very close to North Korea delegates. Yet, he had made no attempt to shake hands with or talk to. His every move during this event indicates that the US does not support its South Korean counterpart’s rapprochement policy.
A Look Ahead
North Korea sees the nuclear weapon as an effective deterrent against possible US attacks. It seeks the preservation of its regime. In this case, abandoning such valuable weapon is off the table. The US-led invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the so-called Arab Spring, reinforced this belief by the North Korean elite.
The Winter Olympics may provide an atmosphere of peace and optimism for reunification, but the tension will eventually return on the Korean peninsula once the Game is over. There is deep distrust between the two countries; therefore, a joint hockey team will not change the geopolitical tension deeply rooted since 1953.
The North Korean nuclear program will still dominate the international headlines for years to come. The Kim family in Pyongyang will do anything possible to safeguard its grip on power. As time passes, the dream of reunification of the two Koreas appears to be a dim light.
Marmara University, Istanbul, Turkey
Department of Political Science and International Relations