News analysis

North Korea may have ulterior motives behind Olympic overture

South Korea, eager to improve ties with the North after a year of tensions, has been quick to act on a rare overture by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by proposing a date for talks that could lead to the communist regime's participation in next month's Winter Olympics.

But analysts warn that a possible motive could be to drive a wedge between South Korea and its security ally, the United States. Another possible motive could be to buy time as Pyongyang continues to develop its nuclear programme.

Mr Kim, in a New Year's speech, said he was willing to send a North Korean delegation to the Winter Games hosted by the South, adding that both sides could "urgently meet" for talks. This marked his first response to Seoul's ongoing invitation to take part in the Winter Olympics, a move that raised hopes of reconciliation in South Korea, even as the US remained wary.

In the same speech, Mr Kim had warned that he has a nuclear button on his desk. Pyongyang last launched an intercontinental ballistic missile - its biggest and most powerful to date - on Nov 29.

The two-pronged approach is a "smart move" with carefully calibrated intentions, said Dr Graham Ong-Webb, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"Kim Jong Un is seeking to accrue diplomatic capital and goodwill amid the current climate of extreme tensions. North Korea knows that its political bank account is now zero, and any further testing at this lowest point risks an American military pre-emption," he told The Straits Times. Sending a team to the Games and entering into talks with Seoul will "top up the bank account" and ease tensions, while at the same time give Pyongyang some space to conduct nuclear testing, he added.

Although North Korea claims its nuclear programme is complete, experts say it has yet to master critical technologies, including re-entry into the atmosphere and warhead activation. This means it is far from developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the US mainland, and will have to continue testing on the quiet.


Experts said that South Korea accepting the North's offer too readily could put it in an awkward position if the US and Japan refuse to budge from their stance to isolate the regime. China and Russia, however, are likely to push for reconciliation.

US Senator Lindsey Graham, for one, has already called on Washington to boycott the Games if Pyongyang takes part. "Allowing Kim Jong Un's North Korea to participate in Winter Olympics would give legitimacy to the most illegitimate regime on the planet," he wrote on Twitter.

Even if inter-Korea relations do improve in the short run with North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics, Dr Cheong Seong Chang of the Sejong Institute warned of difficulties ahead, such as the North demanding a suspension of joint US-South Korea military drills.

There is also concern that Pyongyang will launch its biggest missile yet to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the regime in September.

"South Korea will have to consider deeply how to balance the resolution of the nuclear issue and an improvement of inter-Korea relations," Dr Cheong said.

The North may be counting on the pro-rapprochement South, said Dr Ong-Webb, to "buttress the prospect of a US strike and to even assert that the international community may be resigned to accepting the reality of North Korea as a nuclear-weapons state".

And Pyongyang will find it "easy to blame its compulsion for further testing on the Americans, who will never let up on their hawkish position", he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2018, with the headline 'Pyongyang may have ulterior motives behind Olympic overture'. Print Edition | Subscribe