Marius Grinius is the former Canadian ambassador to South Korea (2004-07) and concurrently to North Korea (2005-07). He is a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
The world was surprised on New Year's Day when North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, stated that he was willing to send a team to South Korea's Winter Olympics next month. His New Year's speech also contained the usual vitriol about "vicious sanctions and pressure" by the United States and its "vassal forces." Mr. Kim boasted that his nuclear forces were "not merely a threat [to the United States] but a reality."
Determined that the "Peace Olympics" proceed smoothly, South Korea quickly and positively responded to Mr. Kim's offer. Senior North and South Korean representatives met on Tuesday. They confirmed North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics and, further, agreed to re-establish the inter-Korean hotline and to hold military-to-military talks to ease tensions. All this was greeted globally with relief. The United States even agreed to postpone its annual military exercises with South Korea until after the Olympics, which are now expected to be, literally, peaceful. But it is what happens after the Olympics that is troubling.
In their joint media statement, North and South also "decided to resolve the issues raised in inter-Korean relations through dialogue and negotiations, as parties directly involved in the matters surrounding the Korean Peninsula." In other words, the North does not want the United States, and perhaps even China, meddling in North-South affairs. Mr. Kim sees inter-Korean relations as "an internal matter for our [collective] nation."
North Korea has already indicated that any discussion of its nuclear weapons program is off the table. Also, the North would only consider in due course the question of re-starting family reunions, a high priority for the South. When inter-Korean military-to-military talks do begin, the North is expected to push hard for the permanent suspension of large-scale military exercises by South Korea and the United States. Other North Korean demands may be a loosening of sanctions, more humanitarian assistance and the resumption of economic co-operation.
Mr. Kim's Olympics gambit may well be an opportunity to drive a wedge, however remote, between South Korea and its closest ally, the United States. With this in mind, South Korea's President, Moon Jae-in, has credited U.S. President Donald Trump in helping force North Korea to resume dialogue. Mr. Moon also reaffirmed that North Korea would face even stiffer sanctions if it resumed weapons testing. There is, however, no indication that North Korea will slow its relentless pursuit to achieve a nuclear weapons capacity able to threaten the United States, and perhaps Canada.
This is why Canada's co-hosting with the United States a meeting next Tuesday of the "Vancouver Group" will be an important contribution to review the current state-of-play. The group consists of countries that actually fought in the Korean War under the United Nations flag or contributed humanitarian assistance. It will also include Japan. The Vancouver meeting will be an opportunity to emphasize their collective concern about North Korea's nuclear drive and show support for the continuing need to maintain strict sanctions against North Korea.
South Korea's Foreign Minister will be expected to brief her colleagues on the results of the North-South meeting and to articulate South Korea's vision of the way forward. Equally important, it will be an opportunity by all concerned to confirm the primacy of diplomatic solutions over any dangerous military possibilities and to identify possible next steps.
But there will be Chinese and Russian elephants in that Vancouver room. While endorsing the inter-Korean talks, neither country has shown any public support for the Vancouver meeting. Both countries matter, and arguably are the key to any peaceful resolution of North Korea's nuclear challenge. Their willingness to accept even stronger UN sanctions last December would indicate their desire to see that peaceful resolution, but on their terms, which, for the time being, would preserve a Stalinist regime with nuclear weapons and a Korean Peninsula still divided by the Cold War.
The way forward, post-Winter Olympics, remains unpredictable and fraught with danger. If the inter-Korean dialogue can be maintained, it will help prevent misunderstandings and potential military miscalculations. The bigger challenge, however, remains Mr. Kim's perceived need for nuclear weapons to ensure the survival of his regime. To resolve this issue will likely require further gambits, not only by the two Koreas but by all concerned, including the United States, China and Russia, and with the support of Canada and other like-minded countries.