Kim’s dialogue proposal is based on the North’s well-worn “By Our Nation Itself” line—that South Koreans must abandon interference from outside powers, who have benefited from keeping the peninsula week and divided, and join with North Korean compatriots to achieve independent national unification. This scheme, incidentally, is incompatible with the international pressure campaign the U.S. is relying on to manage the North’s nuclear program—not to mention with the U.S. alliance the South is relying on to protect it.
And the gambit appeals directly to Moon’s goals, while trying to force a choice: a peaceful Olympics, or South Korea’s alliance with the United States. As part of his dialogue proposal, Kim explicitly criticized the Moon administration for “joining the United States in its reckless moves for a North-targeted nuclear war” and requested the discontinuation of “joint nuclear war drills they stage with outside forces.” (South Korea and the United States hold regular joint military drills, which North Korea consistently portrays as preparation for an invasion.) But it is Kim himself who wants to hold South Korea’s hosting of the Winter Olympics hostage to his demand for global acknowledgement that the North has (illegally) become a nuclear weapons state.
It’s not the first time Kim has used a sporting event in this way. In 2014, Kim suddenly sent three top-ranking officials to the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games held in Incheon to celebrate a better-than-expected performance by North Korean athletes. That visit did not immediately result in progress in inter-Korean relations, but two senior members of the delegation, Hwang Pyung So and Kim Yang Gon, returned for marathon inter-Korean negotiations in August 2015. Those talks aimed at diffusing a different crisis: South Koreans had suffered casualties from a North Korean landmine placed at a post near the demilitarized zone between the two countries, and the South had resumed propaganda broadcasts at the DMZ.
Moon administration proposals for inter-Korean dialogue have been categorically rejected by the North since Moon came into office in May of 2017. Hwang and Kim Yang Gon, North Korea’s senior participants in the August 2015 talks, are no longer on the scene. The Moon administration contains many senior officials who want to revive the sort of inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation that South Korea pursued when Kim Jong Il led the North, but they are hard-pressed to find holdovers still in power under Kim Jong Un. Should talks actually take place, South Korea will have a chance to learn more about who Kim Jong Un trusts to manage inter-Korean dialogue.
But the very offer of talks is an unwelcome reminder that despite South Korea’s international success as a top-ranked global economy, the country remains hobbled both by its rough neighborhood and its exasperating northern neighbor. It exposes Moon’s weaknesses and South Korea’s diplomatic and political constraints, especially as Kim Jong Un tries to generate friction between Presidents Moon and Trump. Both Moon and Trump have put a good face on the relationship despite their ideological and personality differences, but North Korea’s dialogue offer may attempt to exploit the tactical differences between them over how to handle North Korea.