Seoul urges Pyongyang to join Winter Olympics

North Korean figure-skating duo Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik have qualified for the Winter Olympics, but it remains to be seen whether the regime will send them. South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon said the government is working with the
North Korean figure-skating duo Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik have qualified for the Winter Olympics, but it remains to be seen whether the regime will send them. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
North Korean figure-skating duo Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik have qualified for the Winter Olympics, but it remains to be seen whether the regime will send them. South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon said the government is working with the
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon said the government is working with the International Olympic Committee to secure North Korea's participation.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

S. Korea's move to use sports diplomacy seen as key in unlocking nuclear impasse

South Korea has once again urged the North to join the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, a move that some experts consider key in unlocking the nuclear impasse.

North Korean figure-skating duo Kim Ju Sik and Ryom Tae Ok have already qualified for the games to be held next February, but it remains to be seen whether the regime will send them.

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon said yesterday that it will be a "good opportunity" for North Korean athletes to join the international sporting event, and that the Korean government is working closely with the International Olympic Committee to secure North Korea's participation.

Some analysts expect the Winter Olympics to be a crucial turning point, and that sports diplomacy could help bring down tensions that skyrocketed after the North launched a spate of missile and nuclear tests in a bid to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking mainland United States.

The lack of provocations in more than 70 days - the longest since last winter - is viewed by some observers as a temporary freeze in the North's nuclear programme. While Pyongyang remains unusually quiet, Seoul has ramped up efforts to broker a peace deal. Its latest move this week is sending two key officials - Vice-Minister for Unification Chun Hae Sung and nuclear envoy Lee Do Hoon - to the US for talks.

Mr Joel Wit from Johns Hopkins University's US-Korea Institute sees a window of opportunity in the next three to six months for Washington to engage Pyongyang. Speaking at a recent seminar in Seoul, he recalled how the US lifted some sanctions on North Korea after it did not launch any provocations during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and how the goodwill built eventually led to the signing of a 1994 agreement for the regime to freeze its nuclear programme. He suggested scaling back or cancelling the annual US-Korea joint military exercise that would coincide with the winter games.

Other experts, however, voiced concern that North Korea may launch provocations to undermine the Winter Olympics.

Reports surfaced yesterday of radio signals and movements indicating another missile test. Unification Minister Cho said North Korea may not necessarily follow up with another full-fledged provocation, but the South's military is on high alert.

Mr Harry Kim from the University of Texas warned in a commentary that North Korea has a track record of disrupting major sporting events held in the South. "Seoul sees this event as an opportunity to engage with North Korea and to restore stability in the Korean Peninsula. Contrary to this hope, Kim Jong Un's recklessness and unpredictability could result in provocations before or during the Olympics and a catastrophic path to full-blown conflict in the region."

Said Dr Chung Eun Sook of the Sejong Institute think-tank: "Even if the North Koreans agree to come for Winter Olympics, it is only a sign of friendship, not a sustainable mechanism to resolve the nuclear crisis."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 29, 2017, with the headline 'Seoul urges Pyongyang to join Winter Olympics'. Print Edition | Subscribe