North Korea hasn’t won a Winter Olympics medal since 1992 and is unlikely to come away with one in Pyeongchang. The joint Koreas women’s hockey team, which lost 8–0 to Switzerland in its first outing, also isn’t looking like much of a contender. But North Korea’s government has to rank as one of the big winners of the games so far. It may be the world’s most friendless and unpopular government—for good reason—but it’s turning the Olympics into a diplomatic triumph.
Kim Jong-un’s opening move was a New Year’s speech in which he made the surprise announcement that North Korea was open to participating in the games. The North Koreans then agreed to have the two Koreas march together in the opening ceremony and to field that joint hockey team, with both moves generating positive PR. Kim then dispatched the country’s ceremonial president as well as his high-ranking sister to attend the games, the first time a Kim family member has ever visited South Korea. Finally, the Kim regime extended a formal invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to travel to North Korea.
If Moon accepts, it will be the first formal meeting of the leaders of the two Koreas in more than a decade.
All of this would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago, and together, these moves seem aimed at giving the impression that North Korea is looking to end its isolation and re-engage diplomatically with its neighbor. But it’s worth keeping a few things in mind. First, North Korea launched its latest charm offensive only after demonstrating that its ballistic missiles could theoretically reach the East Coast of the United States, establishing the country’s long-sought nuclear deterrent. Second, North Korea is literally holding a gun to South Korea’s head. Artillery pieces aimed at the South could kill an estimated 300,000 South Koreans in the opening days of a theoretical conflict, and that’s without using the country’s nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. Third, North Korea has made it very clear it has no interest in negotiating over its nuclear program. Talks between the two governments could reduce overall tensions in the region, but Kim is keeping his bombs no matter what. North Korea is by far the weaker power—in terms of economy, military might, and alliances—but, remarkably, it appears to be the one dictating the terms of this diplomatic opening.
North Korea has also effectively driven a wedge between the United States and South Korea, highlighting the distance between Moon’s desire for engagement and the Trump administration’s insistence on maintaining “maximum pressure” to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically until it gives up its nuclear weapons. It should be noted that for more than a year, President Trump has made statements that have caused South Korea to question whether it can count on U.S. security guarantees and whether the U.S. might launch a potentially devastating war on the peninsula without Seoul’s agreement. Given the fact that the Trump administration has generally treated the United States’ longtime ally in a high-handed and insulting manner, the U.S. has no right to complain about the South Koreans going their own way.
After awkwardly avoiding contacts with North Korean officials in Pyeongchang, sometimes when they were just feet away, Vice President Mike Pence conceded on the plane ride home that the U.S. was now open to talks with the regime. If you’re wondering how these talks would be different from the Rex Tillerson–proposed communications that Trump said were a waste of time last fall, you’ll have to ask the president. But overall, the U.S. appears to be a step behind the news and out of sync with its key allies in its approach to North Korea, which can only be welcome news for Pyongyang.
Most surprisingly, a government that in recent years has kept hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in concentration camps where, according to the U.N., they are subjected to “deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights,” has managed to get some remarkably positive media coverage out of these games. The unified flag entrance at the opening ceremony was covered as a feel-good moment. While I find the North Korean cheer squads to be depressing and macabre, NBC’s coverage of them in the U.S. has been lighthearted and quirky. First sister Kim Yo-jong, aka “Kim Jong-un’s Ivanka,” has also earned some cringeworthy coverage for “stealing the show” at the games.
Given how devastatingly destructive a war on the Korean Peninsula could be, it’s still probably a net positive that North and South Korea are getting along a little better and that the overall level of tension seems to be ratcheted down. But all of this goodwill is very unearned.
Kim Jong-un is often laughed off in the United States as an unhinged buffoon. But the diplomatic and public relations coup he’s pulled off in the past few weeks has been pretty remarkable. Perhaps it’s time to take him a little more seriously.