It has become tradition among North Korea watchers to dissect Pyongyang’s annual New Year’s Day speech for clues of potential policy changes.
Each year, some experts interpret benign-sounding passages as indicating North Korean reform or greater willingness to engage diplomatically with Washington or Seoul. Others interpret passages that extol North Korea’s military accomplishments as threats of imminent attack on the U.S. or its allies.
To get the full picture, it is important that we assess each benign or bombastic passage within the broader context of the speech, as well as in comparison with speeches in previous years.
Even more importantly, however, is to assess them in light of the actions North Korea has taken after past New Year’s Day speeches.
How ‘New’ Is This New Year’s message?
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s speech reiterated many of the same themes from previous iterations—blaming others for tension on the peninsula, vowing to uphold the socialist economic system, calling for vigilance against foreign and internal enemies, and extending an olive branch to South Korea.
But this year, Kim referenced the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea as a way to appeal for working toward Korean unification, without outside (i.e. U.S.) involvement.
After complaining that the new progressive South Korean government was no better than its conservative predecessors, Kim declared that “we should improve the frozen inter-Korean relations and glorify this meaningful year as an eventful one noteworthy in the history of the nation.”
Kim hinted that “we are willing to dispatch our delegation [and] the authorities of the North and the South may meet together soon. … It is natural for us to share their pleasure over the auspicious [Olympics] event and help them.”
The progressive Moon Jae-in administration responded quickly by announcing its intention to reopen military hotlines and resume inter-Korean meetings—both of which Pyongyang had previously closed.
But as is characteristic of the North Korean regime, Kim imposed conditions on improving inter-Korean relations, declaring that Seoul “should respond positively to our sincere efforts for a détente [by] discontinu[ing] all the nuclear war drills they stage with outside forces, as these drills will engulf this land in flames and lead to bloodshed on our sacred territory.”
Pyongyang has long blamed allied military exercises—but not its own—as an obstacle to improved relations.
Pyongyang’s offer to attend the Olympics may seem novel, but almost all of its past New Year’s Day speeches have called for Seoul to resume the dialogue that Pyongyang had severed, or to reduce the tensions that North Korea had escalated with its provocations, threats, and deadly attacks.
None of those gestures from North Korea were ever matched by a change in the regime’s behavior.
Should North Korea Be Welcomed at the Olympics?
In the 1960s through the ‘80s, the international community was appalled by South Africa’s apartheid regime and thus banned the country from participating in Olympics.
But in response to North Korea’s far more egregious human rights violations—which the United Nations has ruled to be “crimes against humanity”—the world allows and even encourages Pyongyang to participate.
Why the double standard?
The international community has long tried, and failed, to moderate North Korean behavior and bring about political and economic reform by asking Pyongyang to participate in sporting and other cultural events. Yet with each new attempt, optimists breathlessly anticipate that this time, the appeasement will work.
The 2000 Sydney Olympics was one such example. Taking place only six months after the historic first inter-Korean summit, the sight of North and South Korean athletes walking together behind a non-national unification flag was uplifting and a sign of hope.
Yet behind the scenes, North Korea had demanded and received a secret payment from Seoul, along with payment for the North’s uniforms, and agreement that the North’s delegation would not be outnumbered by the South’s. This prevented many South Korean athletes and coaches from marching into the stadium as part of the Korean entourage.
An inspiring sight to be sure, but as with visits by symphonies and other cultural and sporting envoys, this gesture failed to alter North Korea’s policies and real-world behavior.
Similarly, other attempts at sports diplomacy at events in South Korea—including the 2002 Asian Games, the 2003 University Games, the 2005 Asian Athletics Championship, and the 2014 Asian Games—all failed to improve inter-Korean relations. In 1987, Pyongyang downed a civilian airliner in an attempt to disrupt the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
But as the world seeks to isolate and pressure North Korea for its repeated violations of United Nations resolutions, it should ask itself: Why is Pyongyang still allowed to participate in the Olympics, but South Africa was shunned?
Reducing the Potential for Conflict
During the last year, the danger of military hostilities on the Korean Peninsula has risen precipitously due to North Korea’s growing military capabilities, particularly as it closes in on the ability to target the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration’s own messaging toward North Korea has also inflamed tensions. It has signaled willingness to initiate military strikes on North Korea, even without indications of imminent regime attack. This has escalated tensions and unnerved allies. Conflicting policy statements from the administration and the president’s bombastic tweets have unnecessarily antagonized the situation.
U.S. and South Korean diplomats should be willing to meet North Korean counterparts if indeed Pyongyang is now prepared to engage. Washington and Seoul should emphasize efforts to reduce the potential for conflict on the Korean Peninsula, particularly measures to build mutual confidence and security.
But dialogue shouldn’t come at the cost of giving out concessions or reducing the international effort to pressure North Korea for its repeated violations of United Nations resolutions.
Nor should South Korea promise economic benefits that would themselves violate the resolutions, such as resuming the failed joint economic experiment at Kaesong.
As always, we must hold a healthy skepticism toward assertions that the North Korean leopard has suddenly changed his spots. Because, as a Korean adage points out, “the same animal can have soft fur and sharp claws.”