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Globe editorial: How to play North Korea’s Olympic game

With the Winter Olympics in South Korea scheduled to start in five weeks, an important question that has lurked in the background for months now moves to the foreground.

Should the two players with the most at stake in the ongoing dispute over North Korea's nuclear program – South Korea and the United States – use the games as a vehicle for rapprochement with North Korea, as leader Kim Jong-un suggested on Monday?

Or should they ignore Mr. Kim's unexpected request for talks with South Korea about sending a delegation to the Games, and let the tough economic sanctions imposed on his country continue to squeeze him into submission?

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It's a tough call. There is no denying that Mr. Kim is holding the Winter Olympics hostage. His unspoken message is that his country's participation would mean it would not do anything to sabotage the games in Pyeongchang, which lies just 80 kilometres from the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas.

This no doubt informed South Korea's decision to embrace Mr. Kim's offer to talk. South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Tuesday he welcomes the overture and that he wants negotiations to take place next week. The last thing he needs is for North Korea to fire a missile across the Sea of Japan half-way through the Games.

And he isn't being asked to do much. Only two North Korean athletes, both figure skaters, have qualified for the 2018 Games. It would be nothing to accommodate them and their government entourages, as well as allowing some fans and family members to travel to Pyeongchang.

But doing so would go a long way toward restarting talks between two neighbours that haven't exchanged direct words since February 2016, according to officials in South Korea's Unification Ministry. It would also help to calm anxieties about the safety of Olympic athletes.

There are catches, though. Mr. Kim wants much more than to be able to watch a couple of local figure skaters compete in Pyeongchang. His real motive may be to widen the growing gulf between the U.S. and its allies in the region, South Korea included, by getting those allies to walk a softer line than the U.S. would like.

South Korea has been a strong and reliable ally in global efforts to stop Mr. Kim from developing long-range missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. Just last month, it seized oil tankers suspected of supplying fuel to North Korea in violation of international sanctions.

But U.S. President Donald Trump's bombastic insistence that there can be no talks with North Korea before it agrees to freeze its missile program is a headache for South Korea, which can't afford to draw as hard a line in the sand as Mr. Trump can. Simply put, if North Korea keeps testing warheads and the U.S. strikes back pre-emptively, millions of South Koreans could be killed in the ensuing conflict.

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South Korea needs to settle the issue through diplomacy, and the only way to do that is by making compromises. Letting North Korea participate in the Winter Games is easy; the much more difficult concessions involve postponing joint U.S.-South Korea war games that are scheduled to take place on and around the Korean peninsula during the Games, and easing the sanctions on North Korea.

In December, the South Korean president asked the U.S. to delay the military exercises until after the Winter Games. The U.S. still hasn't said whether or not it will.

As for sanctions, they appear to be working. The latest ones, voted on by the UN last month, may be the reason Mr. Kim opened a channel to South Korea in the first place.

Given all these factors, the best solution would be for North Korea to take part in the Winter Games, and for the U.S. to agree to South Korea's request to postpone their joint military exercises.

It's too soon, though, to ease the sanctions on North Korea. It will be enough for now to see Mr. Kim behave during the Olympics, for his country and South Korea to reopen talks, and for the U.S. to reward North Korea by agreeing to delay its war games while there is an opening for dialogue.

If the Games go off without a hitch, Mr. Kim's surprise request for talks could result in a substantial easing of tensions. But Mr. Kim could have something else up his sleeve. Nothing can be taken for granted. As in sports, you can't be sure of the outcome before the final buzzer.

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