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PyeongChang 2018, Moon Jae-in’s “Olympic” feat to unite the two Koreas

Moon Jae-in wants to win the diplomatic battle with his Northern cousins during the Winter Olympics. In the hope Trump doesn’t start a nuclear war. An East Asia expert on how the South Korean president is accomplishing this task.

The only person who is trying to defend the pacifist spirit of the Olympics in the midst of the North Korean nuclear crisis is the president of the Asian country hosting the Winter Olympics from the 9th to the 25th of February in the city of PyeongChang, South Korea. Despite right-wing opposition and a lack of interest on the part of young voters, progressive president Moon Jae-in continues treading the path towards reconciliation. Step by step, this solid politician and human rights advocate succeeded in getting athletes from both Korean countries march under a single flag, as well as unifying the female Korean hockey team.

Moon Jae-In olympics speech
Moon Jae-In’s speech in which he announced the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, on the 5th of February 2018 © Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong accepted to meet him accompanied by a delegation of high-ranking regime officials. As many as 26 heads of state and ministers discussed the nuclear dossier with Moon during the competition, even though French president Emmanuel Macron didn’t attend. Tensions are running high, but at 65 years of age, Moon Jae-in wants to follow in the glorious footsteps of Kim Dae-jung, the president who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his diplomatic efforts with North Korea, known as the Sunshine Policy.

The Winter Olympics revive dreams of unity

20 years ago reunification talks were being held between North and South Korea, but a succession of US administrations and nine years of right-wing governments in Seoul (2008-2017) undid one of the most complex political puzzles in modern history. Meanwhile Kim Jong-un, the third dictator of the North Korean dynasty, possesses long-range nuclear missiles that could reach New York and detonate a thermonuclear bomb more powerful than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

North Korea isn’t willing to give up its nuclear weapons because they’re its only deterrent against US and Chinese interference. Aware of the stance taken by his neighbours, Moon Jae-in is tasked with explaining it to a complicated ally: American president Donald Trump. The president of the United States and his hawks ignore the complicated Korean situation. Trump doesn’t read reports and doesn’t listen to his advisers. He’s been trying to lure Kim Jong-un in a deadly game for months. Disdainful towards Moon, he has threatened to burn North Korea to the ground.

Trump the bellicose president and Moon the lonely pacifist 

“North Koreans don’t want war, they would never attack first,” Rossella Ideo, professor of Political and diplomatic history of East Asian tells us. She’s been saying this for a long time, like in a recent debate that took place at the Institute for International Political Study in Milan, Italy.

“Contrary to what the media has often stated, analysts know that the future of that area of the globe is in the hands of the Trump administration. If he decided to attack the North Korean territory with a single ‘strike’ or what he refers to as a ‘bloody nose’, this would trigger a chain reaction that would cause millions of deaths in Seoul and even in Japan”.

Anyone with insights into the Korean situation knows that the only possible way forward is diplomacy. Trump probably doesn’t even know that the first free elections in South Korea took place in the same year as the Seoul Summer Olympics. After decades of dictatorships tolerated by the US, the 1988 Olympics marked the beginning of democracy in South Korea.

unified female Korean hockey team
The unified female Korean hockey team. South Korea, 4th February 2018 © Woohae Cho/Getty Images

If he wants this favourable event to repeat itself, Moon needs allies. For now, he can count on António Guterres, the new Secretary-General of the United Nations, successor to the ineffective South Korean Ban Ki-moon. But it’s not enough. There would need to be protests in South Korea (the first country that would be targeted if North Korea was to retaliate against American attacks) and in the rest of the world to avoid a nuclear conflict.

Shaking public opinion and counteracting the propaganda brought forth by Trump and his allies would be very useful in this situation. According to the New York Times, Moon should be the first to explain to his electors that reconciliation equals survival. Professor Ideo believes that ignorance is the most dangerous obstacle in these “liquid” times, where countries float within fragile political and economic bubbles.

The Winter Olympics have arrived in a moment of great tension. What is their political significance?
South Korean president Moon Jae-in hopes this event will relax inter-Korean relations. After winning the elections, Moon had already decided that his objective was to mend relations with North Korea, compromised nine years ago by right-wing South Korean governments. The two previous presidents had virtually stopped any sort of dialogue, interrupted cooperation and economic aid. Moon has to repair the damage done by nine years of tension. A task made that became even harder one year ago, when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

trump moon jae in meet
Donald Trump meets Moon Jae-in in Seoul, South Korea on the 7th of November 2017 © Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

What kind of president is South Korean Moon Jae-in?
He’s a progressive democrat, with a simple and informal style. He doesn’t have an imperial attitude, typical of South Korean presidents, who in fact have great power. As cabinet leader of the last progressive president Ron Moo-hyun, he has great knowledge of both internal and international issues. He’s a Roman Catholic, not an Evangelist. He believes in the values of liberal democracy. He’s an environmentalist and a pacifist. Born in North Korea, he escaped to the South with his parents when he was a child. He has no prejudices towards the United States, even though it has supported every dictatorship in South Korea.

Moon Jae-in reminds us of Kim Dae-jung, the first democratic president who started a political dialogue with North Korea, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000.
This is all very similar to the preventive wars at the start of the Millennium. If Kim met the opposition of Bush Jr. at the time, now Moon must face Donald Trump.

Kim Dae-Jung and-Kim Jong-il meet
Historic meeting between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong-il in North Korea © Newsmakers

Why did Moon win against the right-wing opposition?
He was elected after two months of protests and general disdain towards the last conservative president, Park Geun-hye, who was dismissed and arrested for serious crimes such as corruption and disclosure of state secrets. The daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee even created a blacklist containing the names of artists, writers and intellectuals who were considered inconvenient. She used the Secret Service to win the elections. It seems that even a young Samsung executive had given her millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un rose to power in North Korea after the death of his father in 2011. Can you explain his intentions in greater detail?
The third so-called “supreme leader” is continuing in the footsteps of his father Kim Jong-il and his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s political ideas. He has to protect a very small country. He wants to maintain territorial integrity and his country’s independence. All three leaders have always been against the idea that North Korea could become a Chinese or Russian satellite state, even though they supported the country for many years. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union the North Korean regime attempted to obtain the most economical instrument of all: nuclear weapons.

A reactor received by the Russians for civil use was transformed into a plutonium reactor to produce nuclear bombs.
In 1994, during Bill Clinton’s presidency the US found out about this, causing the first great nuclear crisis. This is when Washington considered bombing the North Korean reactor for the first time. The Secretary of State at that time felt like this would have caused another Korean War and millions of deaths, including of US citizens in South Korea.

The same would happen if it was bombed today.
Yes. Like back then, there would also be American victims. Even though its troops were reduced after the Cold War, there are still 28,500 US soldiers and their families as well as public servants at the border between South and North Korea. In addition to these there are at least 60,000 Americans in the nuclear submarine bases off the coast of Japan.

Kim Jong-un pyongyang
Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, North Korea, during Day of the Sun celebrations on the 15th of April 2017 © Epa/How Hwee Young

It’s feared that Trump might start a war after the Olympics. The United States could also use nuclear weapons, launching them from Japan. Therefore, the nuclear threat doesn’t only come from North Korea.
Of course. The Korean peninsula is surrounded by nuclear weapons. North Korea’s so called “siege syndrome” exists for a reason. In 2017 this country was able to produce long-range warheads that could reach New York. But North Korean diplomats clearly stated they would never strike a US city as it would be suicidal. The nuclear threat serves exclusively as a deterrent.

Why does Trump continue instigating, then?
The Trump administration completely ignores the Korean question. The president just wants to distance himself from his predecessors, especially Barack Obama. His irrational nature causes him to continuously threaten North Korea, even though the Department of Defence would prefer a more diplomatic approach. He has considered the possibility of a “bloody nose” or a single “strike”, but small wars don’t exist. How could he possibly hit nuclear warheads hidden in tunnels? If the attack came after the Olympics it would trigger a chain reaction. North Korea could hit Seoul and Japan. There would be millions of casualties, and nothing would change. Trump has no vision, no clear strategy. He acts unreasonably. He even stated he wants to destroy North Korea, killing everyone.

How are South Koreans affected by this tension?
Young people are only thinking about the Olympic festivities. There are no protests against Trump’s crazy declarations. They’re indifferent. We must also bear in mind the impact of right-wing propaganda against dialogue with North Korea.

Are Trump and his hawks crazy, or is Kim Jong-un “mad, ugly and fat” as stated by the media?
No. Kim Jong-un is a rational leader, at the head of an oppressive regime that has been put under siege. We can’t trivialise such a serious matter. The ministers and diplomats he’ll send to the Olympics, which include his sister Kim Yo-jong, are also rational. He defends his country from China and the United States, the two contenders for supremacy in East Asia.

north korea athletes
North Korean athletes, in South Korea on the 8th of February 2018 © Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

He does so brutally.
Undoubtedly. He ordered his uncle’s death in 2014 and the assassination of his half brother in Malaysia, because it seemed that Beijing had considered them for a possible leadership change. China doesn’t have the influence attributed by Washington on such an airtight North Korean regime. President Xi Jinping signed every UN sanction against North Korea and adopts a containment policy. On the other hand, Obama had proposed the “Pivot to Asia” that would have sent more troops to the Pacific, and the sealing of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), to contrast China’s power.

Who is supporting South Korea and its peaceful policy?
President Moon Jae-in invited a delegation of at least 26 leaders as well as António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, who has luckily succeeded the South Korean Ban Ki-moon, who was able in playing for time. Guterres may represent a great turning point. He sent his political assistant and former American diplomat Jeffrey Feltman to North Korea, who met the regime’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho. Unfortunately, for now, Emmanuel Macron doesn’t seem to be interested in participating.

Hopefully he’ll change his mind. What can we expect from the Olympic diplomacy?
Not much. Moon’s attempt to rebuild a relationship during the Olympics and making it last after the event is over will be extremely difficult. The two protagonists of this crisis, the US and North Korea, are at two opposites. Trump’s vice-president described North Korea as a “horrible” country that wants to “steal” the Olympics from the South. This is far from the truth. North and South Korea have agreed for the athletes to participate in the parade together and in some cases unify their teams.

Moon needs the support of a more ample diplomacy. Should he be at the centre of international support and attention?
Yes, absolutely. He also asked Washington to interrupt unified military drills between South Korea and the United States during the Olympics, but his request was denied.

Moon would like to act as a bridge between the United States and North Korea. Is he alone for now?
Yes.

Translated by

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