Intra-Korean talks resumed in the run-up to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and immediately following Trump’s threatening tweet about his big nuclear button.
The American President claimed in a later tweet that his tough stance was the reason why Kim Jong-Un decided to return to the negotiating table, but the truth is that North Korea did this immediately following news that the US and South Korea delayed a planned military drill until after the upcoming Olympic Games. In hindsight, it’s possible that Trump’s “nuclear brinksmanship” on social media was meant to divert the attention of the global masses from this ‘politically inconvenient’ fact and provide a ‘face-saving’ distraction from a pragmatic move that could have otherwise misleadingly been painted by his opponents as “backing down”.
As it stands, Trump believes that the implementation of his “Madman Theory” in practice is the reason why it was Kim who backed down, not himself, while Kim seems to think that his year of successful nuclear and missile tests was responsible for the US taking the first step in de-escalating the situation by delaying its upcoming military exercises with South Korea. Both sides can brush off any criticism over who blinked first by actually embracing this charge and justifying it on the basis of being in the “Olympic spirit”, thereby turning any potential attack into a soft power advantage if they’re clever enough.
It’s highly likely that this incipient “détente” will only last until the end of the Olympics, if at all, but there’s also the chance that it could provide China with a golden opportunity to make progress in mediating the crisis on the peninsula. Beijing has previously called for a so-called “double freeze”, or the simultaneous suspension of US-South Korean military drills and North Korean nuclear & missile tests, which is actually what in fact has just temporarily happened despite none of the parties openly recognizing this. Depending on the outcome of the intra-Korean talks, South Korean President Moon Jae-In might even feel encouraged to revive last year’s campaign pledge to initiate a “New Sunshine Policy” towards North Korea.
The challenge to this happening has always been the US, which has sought to provoke North Korea over the past year in order to provide South Korea with the ‘plausible pretext’ for shelving this policy and agreeing to more THAAD deployments on the peninsula, so it remains to be seen whether America will ruin the possibly positive progress that both sides might make. Even if it tries to, however, then it’ll be important for North Korea not to take the bait, since this “goodwill gesture” could build enormous trust and confidence in the South Koreans and show them that Pyongyang is serious about abiding by China’s “double freeze”, which could conceivably enter into effect so long as Seoul is convinced to continue delaying military drills with the US or outright suspending them like Beijing proposed.
To revisit the analysis’ original question, it can be argued in conclusion that neither Trump nor Kim backed down in paving the way for the intra-Korean talks, but that both have an interest in making it seem like their rival was the one who did, though the ultimate judge of character will be in seeing which of the two subverts the “Olympic spirit” either during the games or afterwards in returning to the status quo of much-ballyhooed rhetorical hostility.
By Andrew Korybko
Source: Oriental Review