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Pyeongchang Olympics Opening Ceremony

Why North Korea's Olympic 'charm offensive' could mask darker intentions


As tensions with North Korea and the wider world began to peak in the last year, there was an apparent glimmer of hope in January when it was announced that the two countries would cooperate in the upcoming Olympic winter games.

During the opening ceremony, North and South Korea marched under a white and blue flag, portraying their shared peninsula united. They will also field a single women's hockey team in another rare display of unity. Remarkably, the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un even sat near Vice President Mike Pence. But all the symbols of peace and friendship mask what has been one of the most turbulent periods of North and South Korean relationship.

"If you unpack the symbolism, it's less than meets the eye," said Bruce Klinger, the CIA's former deputy division chief for Korea.

It's not the first time the two Koreas have made these kinds of diplomatic gestures. The two teams engaged in similar moves during several Olympic games and other sporting events in the recent past. But generally speaking, they have not done much to alleviate the problems between the two countries, which are technically still in a state of war.

Pyeongchang Olympics Opening Ceremony
North Korea's Hwang Chung Gum and South Korea's Won Yun-jong carries the flag during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

"Cultural events were hoped to be seen as a precursor or catalyst to improved relations, and none of them were," said Klinger.

Indeed, North Korea's occasional polite gestures have often come with expectations at their best, and followed by military aggression at their worst. These occasional olive branches from North Korea have been described as "charm offensives," and Kim Jong Un's father, Kimg Jong Il, was a master of them.

"North Korea's charm offenses tend to be more offensive than charming," said Klinger. "It's sort of a two page playbook. Raise tension and then offer to reduce tension to back the status quo, but in return for something."

When North Korea was met with debilitating sanctions for its nuclear program in years past, the Kim regime would hint toward reopening negotiations. It started with Bill Clinton, who tried to offer North Korea a carrot with one hand, and a stick in the other. George W. Bush instituted tough sanctions, but also participated in the six party talks on North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Those talks fell apart in 2009. The Obama administration essentially maintained the status quo as Kim Jong Il took over, while the Trump administration does not appear to be making much headway either. Today, it appears that Kim's sister Kim Yo Jong is leading the current offensive.

Kim Yong Nam, Kim Yo Jong, Mike Pence
Kim Yo Jong, top right, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, sits alongside Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of North Korean Parliament, and behind U.S. Vice President Mike Pence as she watches the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

North Korea has engaged in a nuclear test and several provocative missile launches since the last Olympic games in 2016. As usual, sanctions followed, but that did not seem to deter the regime. Until recently, their was a genuine concern that war would erupt. Things took a drastic change in January, when all of a sudden Kim said he was "open to dialogue" on Olympic partnership. It was a big deal, considering this year's games are just over the border in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Sending a team to the south could expose them to a new world that the regime has spent decades hiding from their people.

But North Korea has a way of stopping that.

"The athletes would be from families and a background that are seen to be reliable," said Klingner.

Like any other country, North Korea has diplomats and dignitaries that travel abroad and see the world outside of their hermit homeland. If loyalty to country isn't enough, the Kim regime has another insurance policy it employs.

"They have toe leave behind what's known as an anchor child," explained Klinger. "They have to leave behind one of their children in North Korea as a hostage."

If there are no children to punish, the regime is known for holding up to three generations of family members responsible for the disloyalty of a single citizen.

APTOPIX Pyeongchang Olympics Opening Ceremony
Athletes from North and South Korea wave Korean unification flags as they arrive during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

He doubted that the athletes would be punished for poor performance, instead, the concern is likely ensuring good behavior. When members of the North Korea team flew into South Korea last week, they were skirted by various regime officials in a scene reminiscent of the Soviet era.

There was already a crucial sign that North Korea was up to its old tricks before the opening ceremony when it rescheduled a huge military parade just one day prior. In the past, these events have been used as exhibitions of new military hardware, including ballistic missiles.

"What is likely to happen is the Olympics will come and go, the U.S. and South Korea will implement their postponed military exercises, North Korea will continue to do missile testing," said Klingner. "And then people will perhaps blame the U.S. for insisting on the exercises, but it was all going to be carried out according to [the] North Korean script anyway."

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