What is North Korea's charm offensive about?

by Anna Fifield / 17 February, 2018
North Korean cheerleaders at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Photo/Getty Images

North Korean cheerleaders at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - North Korea Winter Olympics

North Korea’s unexpected charm offensive at the Winter Olympics has taken some by surprise. Anna Fifield looks at what it means.

If someone had told me at the end of 2017 that I’d soon be sitting in a stadium with North Korea’s “First Sister” and its nominal head of state, I would have laughed. Hell, if someone had told me that at the beginning of February, I would have laughed.

But this is exactly what happened last week, when I was in Pyeongchang to cover the opening of the Winter Olympics – and when I happily had the opportunity to cheer the New Zealand team as they walked out into the stadium.

Kim Jong-un sent his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, to South Korea as his “special envoy” as part of an Olympics-related rapprochement. Even before she arrived in South Korea on her brother’s private jet, there was a media frenzy around her. We know so little about the North Korean first family that there is a huge hunger for the slightest insight into this dictator and his cronies.

If North Korea was going on a charm offensive, it could hardly have hoped for a better charmer. Kim Yo-jong was understated yet personable, smiling all the time and attending meals, hockey games and concerts with the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in.

And she brought with her something the President was eagerly awaiting: an invitation to go to Pyongyang. For Moon, the President who wants to bring North Korea in from the cold by talking to it, rather than isolating it, it was exactly what he’d hoped for.

But there is a lot of scepticism in both South Korea and the United States about Kim Jong-un’s sudden olive branch. Why – after a year of missile launches, a huge nuclear test and increasingly belligerent threats – is the North Korean leader suddenly playing nice?

First, it looks as if Kim Jong-un is beginning to worry and he’s looking for someone to help. Who better than his estranged brother in the South?

Visitors to Pyongyang say Kim Jong-un has become increasingly concerned about the talk in Washington of giving him a “bloody nose” with a targeted military strike. The military option, which has long been ruled out as too risky because South Korea would be devastated in the retaliation phase, is suddenly being discussed as a real possibility.

Second, international sanctions imposed on North Korea are beginning to hurt. The broad measures applied through the United Nations last year cracked down on the country’s main exporting industries: coal, seafood and garments. With that money drying up, the Kim regime could soon find itself in a tight spot.

So, to find the weakest link in the chain, he sent a delegation south for the Olympics. It was a genius move, because it was not a political event, yet it took full advantage of the South Korean President’s desires to make the Olympics the “peace games” and to engage with the north. Kim’s smiling sister was the perfect propaganda unit for the job – not surprising, since her day job is running North Korea’s propaganda operations.

The question now is what happens next? Is the South Korean President so keen for a summit in the north that he will press ahead, even if it angers his allies in the US? And will North Korea prove any more willing to have substantive negotiations than before?

Probably not. Kim Jong-un didn’t spend all that time and money just to give up his nuclear weapons.

But Moon has to try. At the very least, he can lower the tensions on the peninsula and reduce the risk to the 25 million South Koreans living within North Korean artillery range.

Anna Fifield, a New Zealander, is the Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the February 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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