First, it could be purely symbolic, a propaganda effort by the North to buy goodwill in South Korea and the international community, where there is intense distrust of Pyongyang’s intentions because of its past record of cheating on its international obligations regarding nuclear weapons and missiles. There are some signs that North Korea’s neighbors and the United States believe this is the case. Axios reported Tuesday that H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s national-security adviser, met secretly last weekend with Japanese and South Korean officials in San Francisco and “agreed that resumed communications by the North Koreans are diversions and don’t have any effect on its determined pursuit of nuclear weapons.” For the U.S. and its allies, in particular, getting rid of the North’s nuclear-weapons program is the ultimate goal of any negotiations. For its part the North, its allies in China say, sees the weapons as its only credible deterrent against a U.S. attack.
Second, and not mutually exclusively, the announcement could help build confidence between the two Korean governments, as well as public confidence in the South over the North’s intentions. There’s precedent for this: The two countries fielded two joint teams—one male and one female—for the world table-tennis championship in 1991. The female team won gold, leading to emotional scenes in Chiba, Japan, where they defeated the Chinese. Athletes from both countries were cheered as they marched for the first time under their “unification flag” at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. A selfie taken by a South Korean athlete with one from North Korea went viral. But all these events occurred outside South Korea. The Winter Games are being held inside the country—and already plans for a joint hockey team have received a frosty reception among some in the South.
“The thing to be watching for at this moment is the South Korean response to the joint processional, because the joint processional brings into conflict the unified identity with the South Korean hosting identity around the Olympics,” Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview. “It’ll be very interesting to see how South Korean people respond to that.”
Third, it’s possible the move could help repair relations between the two Koreas, but if the past is any indicator, such gains are typically tenuous. In the past, a change of government in South Korea has been enough to derail relations. Typically, more liberal governments, such as the current South Korean government headed by President Moon Jae In, engage with North Korea (he was elected last year on that very pledge). But when the more liberal governments give way to more conservative ones, dialogue is often frozen. Center-left presidents governed South Korea during both the 2000 and 2004 Olympics when the two Koreas marched under a single flag.