By Sophie Smith
The 21st century’s Miracle on Ice: North and South Korea have joined forces to assemble a joint women’s hockey team for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. Appearances of unification like this have been the buzz of the 2018 games, with talk swirling around the world about the possibility of peace in the peninsula. Delegations from North and South Korea marched together under the Korean Unification flag, the military hotline along the border between the countries reopened in January, and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-un, is attending the games. Kim Yo-jong’s presence in itself seems to be a gamechanger. She is the first of her family to visit South Korea, where she has met with the country’s first lady and invited the president to a summit in Pyongyang.
These are our long-awaited signals that tensions in the region are finally deescalating. No more need to worry about the threat of a nuclear winter, everyone. (How much do you think I could get for an unused fallout meter on eBay?)
But, I would advise caution. While these developments are certainly strides in the right direction, their significance should not be overestimated. The tense relationship between North Korea and the rest of the world is tangled with nuance and duplicity. By now, we are familiar with North Korea’s reputation for vicious propaganda, so we would be forgiven to assume these supposed attempts at unification are just more ways to make the country look powerful and reasonable.
When Kim Yo-jong told South Korea’s first lady, “Always stay healthy. Make sure you visit Pyongyang with President Moon,” how much authenticity did her words carry? Kim Yo-jong’s details about this summit were nonexistent while the pleasantries she exchanged with the president and his wife sounded rehearsed and contrived. Is she really interested in a unified Korea, or is she trying to paint her brother’s authoritarian regime as an amenable one?
Then there’s the bizarre 137-person cheer squad that accompanied the North Korean athletes. Theatrical patriotism like this is a hallmark of the Kim dynasty, one that can easily be written off as a national oddity and one that it’s probably best ignored by the rest of us. But spectacles like this are usually reserved for North Koreans — it’s rare to see them on a global platform. The country’s ambitions are growing. No longer satisfied with only brainwashing its own citizens, now North Korea wants to convince the rest of the world of its unfaltering national pride.
Maybe I’m just being cynical. Perhaps North Korea really is opening itself to the possibility of peace. If this is the case, though, now the ball is in South Korea’s court.
South Korean president Moon Jae-in has been a longtime advocate for engagement and unification with North Korea, but he faces challenges from his constituents, particularly those from younger generations. Protesters in Seoul say they are angry their government, in its attempt to instigate genteel peace talks, is overlooking what a cruel and authoritarian regime North Korea is. Unifying the countries would also be financially damaging to South Korea, considering how far behind the economy of its northern neighbor is. In fact, according to The New York Times, 50 percent of South Koreans did not support the use of the Korean Unification Flag at the opening ceremony. Of course most South Koreans want peace in the region — they just don’t want to get there the way President Moon is suggesting.
As usual, the greatest barrier on the road to global peace is the United States. Mike Pence, the head of the US Olympic delegation, personified the country’s current stance on North Korea during the opening ceremony, refusing to stand for the Korean entrance and ignoring Kim Yo-jung, despite sitting next to her.
It is unlikely the US will soften its hardline approach to relations with North Korea. Attending the games with Mike Pence is Fred Warmbier. Warmbier is the father of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died immediately following his release from North Korean prison. Critics, including representatives from North Korea, say this is a veiled attempt to justify continued aggression against the country — reminiscent of Donald Trump’s parade of the Warmbier parents at his State of the Union Address last month.
The US will leave no room for niceties in future peace talks with North Korea. Pence told the Washington Post, when discussing the US’s future with the country, “The maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify.” Although the Trump administration is now open to negotiations for a potential nuclear arms deal, the US remains resolute in its opinion that North Korea should not be regarded with anything less than contempt.
Developments from the Winter Olympics are promising, but total peace with North Korea is still far away, if it’s coming at all. Before the problem can be solved, world leaders still have a messy knot to untangle — constituents to please, peace talks to be negotiated and egotism to maintain. So for now, doomsday predictors should probably hold onto their fallout meters. Just in case.