While the circumstances of 1988 and 2018 are by no means exactly alike, there are striking similarities. Ahead of this year’s games, there is an opportunity for Washington and Seoul to coordinate their strategy and move from confrontation to dialogue. That strategy could consist of small confidence-building measures, ultimately intended to lead to talks that address each side’s concerns—particularly the North Korean nuclear threat.
In the late 1980s, South Korea, emerging from decades of military rule, viewed the Olympics as a coming-out party for its new, democratically-elected government. But the sense of celebration was undercut by fears that the North would try to disrupt the event. Indeed, scaring off participants in the games may have been one objective of the 1987 bombing. Still, soon after taking office in February 1988, South Korea’s President Roh Tae U, a former general, began considering a new approach: dialogue with North Korea if the Olympics went off without a hitch.
Washington was also rethinking its approach to Pyongyang. Since the end of the Korean War, its overriding objective in the region was to provide political, military, and economic support for the South while isolating the North, which not only posed a serious threat to its friends but was also aligned with its Cold-War adversaries, the Soviet Union and China. However, the Reagan administration came to realize that the only way to secure peace on the Korean Peninsula was to reach out to the North. By 1987, Washington had already begun discussions with the South over the possibility of easing its policy of isolation. Thus, Roh’s initiative found fertile ground.
According to declassified U.S. government documents and interviews with former officials, the Reagan administration devised a roadmap for engaging North Korea, dubbed the “modest initiative.” It was not intended as a grand bargain to resolve all outstanding Korea-related issues. Rather, the new approach aimed to align Washington with Roh, while paving the way for a new U.S. policy towards Pyongyang.
The key to the Reagan strategy was that it did not depend on reciprocal steps by Pyongyang. In other words, if the Kim regime merely showed restraint by leaving the Olympics alone, Washington would encourage unofficial, nongovernmental visits by North Koreans to the United States, ease financial regulations impeding travel to the North by U.S. citizens, permit limited commercial export of humanitarian goods to the North, and allow State Department officers to hold substantive discussions with North Korean diplomats. When the Seoul Olympics concluded without disruption, the Reagan administration approved all four steps.
But the modest initiative didn’t end there. The Reagan administration decided that, in lieu of requiring reciprocal measures by North Korea, it would ask for a “positive, constructive” response. Five suggested steps were conveyed to Pyongyang via its ally, China: Demonstrate tangible progress on North-South dialogue; return the remains of Americans missing in action from the Korean War; stop the drumbeat of anti-U.S. propaganda; implement confidence-building measures along the demilitarized zone; and offer credible assurances that it had abandoned state-backed terrorism.