The Winter Olympics are set to begin Thursday in Pyeongchang, South Korea — and though the spotlight will be on athletes from around the world, the ongoing tensions between the United States and North Korea will certainly be in the air.
Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to lead the U.S. delegation at the Olympics opening ceremony, and he won’t be letting North Korea off the hook for its ongoing human rights abuses and repeated nuclear threats. The vice president will “not allow North Korea’s propaganda to hijack the messaging of the Olympics,” one Pence aide told Axios, and he will seek to highlight North Korea’s abuses to prevent the rogue country’s “normalization” as it participates in the games.
“We’re traveling to the Olympics to make sure that North Korea doesn’t use the powerful symbolism and the backdrop of the Winter Olympics to paper over the truth about their regime,” Pence told reporters Wednesday, according to CNN.
As part of his strategy, Pence will be bringing Fred Warmbier, father of late North Korean prisoner Otto Warmbier, as his guest to the opening ceremony, the Washington Post reported. The Warmbier family attended the State of the Union on Jan. 30, where President Donald Trump “pledge[d] to honor Otto’s memory with total American resolve.” Otto Warmbier died in June after being evacuated from North Korea to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center; by that point, he had been in a coma for 15 months. He was originally arrested and convicted by North Korean authorities in 2016 for “hostile acts against the state,” according to the Post.
The U.S. delegation will also include the top U.S. general in South Korea, Gen. Vincent Brooks, and Brooks’ predecessor, along with other government officials and 2002 Olympic figure skating gold medal winner Sara Hughes. First daughter and assistant to the president Ivanka Trump will lead the U.S. delegation to the Olympics closing ceremony at her father’s request, CNN reported Monday. Ivanka Trump is also expected to attend several sporting events.
On Wednesday, Pence announced further sanctions on North Korea, continuing a recent string of harsh rhetoric from the U.S. about the isolationist nation. In addition to Trump’s State of the Union, during which he described the U.S. as “waging a campaign of maximum pressure” against North Korea, the president met with defectors from the country at the White House on Friday.
Lisa Collins, a fellow with the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in an interview with Mic that few presidents have attempted similar meetings, as such a move is “usually something that upsets the North Koreans a lot.”
Collins said Pence’s plan for the Olympics is set to continue “the Trump administration’s strategy to continue to keep pressure on North Korea” while also ensuring that “other countries are also on board with the strategy of pressure.”
Cooperation between North and South Korea
The Trump administration’s moves centered around the Olympics comes as the Asian nation prepares to present a unified front with South Korea. The two Korean countries will march in the opening ceremony and compete in women’s hockey under one flag, and a North Korean art troupe is expected to stage a performance in South Korea. The country will also send a cheerleading troupe to the Olympics, marking only the third time the cheerleaders have visited South Korea since the start of the Korean War in 1950.
North Korea will send to the Olympics a delegation of 22 officials led by ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam, who will be the highest-ranking North Korean official to visit South Korea since 2014.
Kim Jong Un’s influential sister Kim Yo Jong — noted as “Kim Jong Il’s Ivanka” by the New York Times — will also be part of the delegation.
“Although Kim Yong Nam is the official head of the delegation, it will be Kim Yo Jong who will decide its activities,” Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, South Korea, told the Times. “By including his sister in the delegation, Kim Jong Un may want to show his interest in improving ties with South Korea.”
South Korea is also seeking to improve relations with the North. President Moon Jae-in was elected on a platform that advocated diplomatic talks with North Korea — though it’s still unclear what effect the Olympics cooperation will have on the countries’ long-term relations.
The nations “haven’t had inter-Korean talks in a while, so the South Koreans are very eager to make sure they have a good Olympics and to try to jump-start inter-Korean relations,” Jung H. Pak, a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, said in an interview with Mic. “So I think for now, for the Olympics, they’re cooperating on this. But South Korea faces a decision on how to make good inter-Korean ties and apply maximum pressure, which is [the U.S.’s] policy.
“North Korea has shown a willingness to continue inter-Korean talks — they’ve talked about cultural exchanges, or maybe family reunions can happen, but the North Koreans have refused to talk about denuclearization,” Pak added. “So it will be really hard to advance inter-Korean ties, because it has been pegged to maximum pressure on denuclearization.”
As it stands now, the Olympics negotiations have resulted in a “less tense” yet still “very tenuous” relationship between the two Koreas, CSIS’ Collins said. There is some continuing tension, however. Reports of a North Korean military parade taking place the day before the Olympics have sparked discord, and North Korea suddenly canceled a planned pre-Olympics cultural event over “insulting” coverage of the country by the South Korean media.
North Korea’s presence at the games will still give the isolationist nation a chance to wage a “charm offensive” that presents the country in a positive light — precisely what Pence’s hard-line Olympics strategy aims to counter.
“The media’s portrayal of North Korea, with its ski resorts and its cheerleaders … That all had the effect of normalizing North Korea, of making it seem like kind of an upscale and modern kind of country,” Pak said. In the wake of the flattering coverage, Pence’s Olympic efforts “keeps the spotlight on North Korea as a rogue nation,” Pak added.
Potential for talks
The presence of both high-level U.S. and North Korean officials has opened the door to potential diplomacy, despite Pence’s approach. Neither the vice president nor Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are ruling out the possibility of talks taking place at the Olympics.
“With respect to the vice president’s trip to the Olympics and whether or not there would be an opportunity for any kind of a meeting with North Korea, I think we’ll just see,” Tillerson said at a news conference in Lima, Peru, on Monday.
“It’s well known there’s a dialogue between North Korea and South Korea. North Korea is participating in the Olympics as well, so we don’t know what might present itself,” he said Wednesday in Colombia, as quoted by CNN.
When asked about Tillerson’s comments, Pence was similarly evasive. “With regard to any interaction with the North Korean delegation, I have not requested a meeting, but we’ll see what happens,” he said, according to the Post.
Trump, meanwhile, expressed a note of cautious optimism about the Olympics during his meeting with the defectors Friday, telling reporters that while the U.S. “has no road left” when it comes to North Korea, “We’ll get through the Olympics and maybe something good can come out of the Olympics. Who knows.”
Administration officials cited by CNN suggested the South Korean government is pushing for a U.S.-North Korea meeting and is acting as an intermediary to arrange the talks. Collins said the desire for U.S.-North Korea talks, as well as talks between the two Koreas, is part of South Korea’s efforts to “create opportunities” to engage with North Korea after the Olympics and reconcile the “difficult position” in which the country currently finds itself between the U.S. and North Korea.
“I think [South Korea] is doing a lot of work, but they’re in a very difficult position,” Collins said. “Moon Jae-in, he campaigned on a pledge to improve inter-Korean relations and to engage the North, and so I think his government has a very long-term vision of doing that and still have that objective in mind. But at the same time, they’re very cognizant of trying to have a very strong U.S.-South Korea alliance in order to deter North Korea from taking very provocative actions.”
However, foreign policy experts in South Korea, as cited by the Korea Herald, have said there are unlikely to be “meaningful” talks during the Olympics that would resolve the current nuclear standoff between the U.S. and North Korea. Collins and Pak agree that any long-term impact on the relationship between the U.S. and the two Koreas likely depends on what happens after the games.
“I think after the Olympics, that’s when we’ll have to see some real negotiations,” Pak said. “If South Korea is interested in continuing to talk to North Korea, and if North Korea continues to not talk about denuclearization, that’s going to present problems for President Moon’s administration that wants to do a two-track policy of developing inter-Korean ties and applying maximum pressure. At some point, that might run into conflict and might create some tension with the U.S.”
What happens next will also depend on North Korea’s reaction to upcoming joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea following the Olympics, Collins said. The annual exercises were initially postponed as a condition of North Korea’s participation in the games, according to the New York Times.
“After the Olympics are done, the U.S. and South Korea have signaled they’re still going to continue with the military exercises for the alliance,” Collins said. “Depending on what North Korea’s reaction is to that, we could see a return to tensions. Or, if there are no reactions from the North Koreans and there are opportunities for engagement throughout the Olympics period, then there may be more hope for a tenuous, quiet peace — but I’m sort of pessimistic about that.”