In The Media

Two pieces of North Korean theatre, worlds apart, staged for Donald Trump

by Campbell Clark (feat. Stephen Saideman)

The Globe and Mail
January 17, 2018

It's dramatic. North Korea will field a joint team for the Winter Olympics with South Korea, though the two are still technically at war and quite practically divided by a demilitarized zone. Yet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has agreed to send an Olympic delegation that is to include 230 cheerleaders. What could be a more theatrical symbol of rapprochement than competing on the same side?

Yet, in Vancouver, mere hours before the Olympic announcement, there was a different kind of North Korean diplomatic theatre. The representatives of 20 countries lined up to make a clear statement that Pyongyang must "denuclearize" – completely abandon its nuclear-weapons program.

The problem is, that's not going to happen.

The two shows are an ocean apart. There's a gulf between what was happening among U.S. allies and what is happening between North and South Korea.

In Vancouver, the message was that there can be no truck with Pyongyang as long as it has nuclear weapons.

In Asia, South Korea agreed to march on the same team, next month.

In both cases, much of it was aimed at U.S. President Donald Trump – not just North Korea – and his talk of military intervention.

The Vancouver summit, co-hosted by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, wasn't so much diplomacy as pantomime. The bad guy was booed and the whole play had a simple message. Twenty countries said sanctions won't stop till North Korea gives up the nukes.

Never mind that those 20 countries, which didn't include China and Russia, weren't the ones who could hash out a deal. This wasn't about a deal, but solidarity behind a tough message: North Korea must denuclearize.

But everyone there knew that's not the solution.

That's a long-standing position of the international community, but North Korea, which sees its security from attacks as being based on the ability to kill millions in retaliation, isn't going to give up all its nuclear weapons. Besides, the nukes aren't new – the thing that has ratcheted up concern is Pyonyang's development of inter-continental ballistic missiles.

The other key development is Mr. Trump, and talk of war – or just as chilling, the talk of a potential "bloody nose" strike on North Korea that could inflict pain without leading to full-scale war.

So North Korea won't denuclearize, and the President has already raised the military option.

"[North Korea and the United States] are running out of steps between where they started and war," said Stephen Saideman, an international security professor at Carleton University.

In Mr. Trump's administration, it's Mr. Tillerson who speaks up for multilateral action and pressure tactics such as sanctions, but he's been undermined by the tweeting President. No wonder he wanted to convene allies who agree. No wonder that those countries, which don't favour the rush to war, wanted to show they'll support the United States when it uses diplomacy.

Perhaps that sends a message to Mr. Trump that there are non-military options.

But the problem is they don't seem to lead anywhere. Having already threatened military action, the United States "doesn't have a clear step forward," said Michael Mazarr, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation.

And in that dangerous stalemate, in stepped Mr. Kim, with impeccable timing, to engage in clever Olympic diplomacy. He found a partner in South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

There are always doubts within South Korea about making yet another attempt at "sunshine" diplomacy with the North, but the Olympics were a clear opportunity, Mr. Mazarr said. South Korea was worried that North Korea might try to disrupt the Games and had a reason to talk.

Now that they're yielding symbolic steps, they might justify more talks after the Olympics: Many Koreans, on both sides of the border, might be moved by the sight of a joint team at the Olympics, Mr. Mazarr said. "Don't underestimate the emotional resonance of the concept of the Korean nation," he said.

And if North and South Korea are in post-Games political talks, including security and nuclear weapons, and seemingly making even a little progress, it would be almost impossible for Mr. Trump to launch a military strike, Mr. Mazarr said. "It would be an act of strategic folly."

Ironically, it's a switch on traditional North Korean tactics: Pyongyang has often rattled a sabre to push the United States into direct talks and cut out South Korea.

Now, Mr. Kim is attempting to use talks with the South – and some Olympic symbolism – to freeze out Mr. Trump.

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