Call it the diplomacy of low expectations: After Kim Jong Un’s regime spent much of the past year threatening its neighbors and the U.S. with its nuclear weapons, his sister got a surprisingly warm reception at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. And North Korea—having sent athletes and cheerleaders to the Games as well—got the kind of publicity that should have been reserved for South Korea, which organized, paid for, and is hosting the event.
Here are some of the recent headlines:
Kim Jong-un’s Sister Turns On the Charm, Taking Pence’s Spotlight (The New York Times)
Michael Bristow, the Asia-Pacific editor at the BBC, said that Kim Yo Jong in particular had “bolstered the image of North Korea.”(Such image management is her job as deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the North Korean Communist Party.) But he noted that “not everyone has been taken in.” The Japanese foreign minister dismissed her performance as “smile diplomacy.”
“It’s an odd situation where you have a country, North Korea, that’s been developing nuke weapons in contravention of UN sanctions appearing quite well,” Bristow said, “and a country like America, which has been the staunch ally of South Korea, coming across as quite badly.” Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the Games, was not noted for his “smile diplomacy;” he did not greet the North Korean emissary, nor stand for the arrival of the joint Korean women’s hockey team.
Smiles aside, North Korea remains an international pariah that oppresses its citizens, assassinates its critics, brutally treats its foreign prisoners, and relies on crime to finance its activities. Vice President Mike Pence might have, in the words of Reuters, “cast one of the loneliest figures at the opening event” or, as the Times quoted analysts as saying, “missed an opportunity” for diplomacy, but the Trump administration, even when sending mixed signals on North Korea, has been consistent about one thing: Kim Jong Un’s is a rogue regime.
The friendly image of Kim Yo Jong, and the handshakes she shared with South Korean President Moon Jae In, belie a few realities: The two Koreas are technically still at war. The nature of the North Korean regime hasn’t changed. Kim Jong Un still wants to fit a nuclear warhead onto an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the contiguous United States. And he already has conventional weapons that threaten much of South Korea.
As recently as last month, Kim warned “the entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, a nuclear button is always on my desk.” (President Trump responded saying his button was “much bigger and more powerful.”) There were even concerns North Korea might act to disrupt the Winter Olympics, but then, suddenly, the two Koreas began talking, and the North agreed to send athletes, cheerleaders, and taekwondo-demonstration teams. North Korea suspended its missile and nuclear tests, and the U.S. and South Korea suspended their joint military exercises until April, well after the Olympics end.
Pyongyang’s attempted rapprochement with Seoul might be genuine, or it could be a ploy to get relief from the sustained U.S.-led pressure that has resulted in the strongest sanctions regime at the UN against North Korea. But it’s premature to say that the diplomacy between the Koreas is working (or not working). There have been past attempts at sporting diplomacy between the two countries—and after several photo-ops they have ultimately collapsed. Pence, who represented the U.S. at the Opening Ceremony, was in an awkward position in Pyeongchang. Had he engaged with Kim Yo Jong, he would have faced criticism of a different sort—like the kind Madeleine Albright, the Clinton-era secretary of state, got for meeting Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang. That visit followed years of quiet diplomacy yielding a deal under which the North agreed to ultimately end its nuclear program. (The deal eventually collapsed.) But the circumstances now are decidedly different.
There has been little direct contact between the U.S. and North Korea for years. The Obama administration engaged in what it called “strategic patience” with North Korea, essentially ignoring it diplomatically while tightening sanctions. The Trump administration’s policy is somewhat similar—even if it is known as “maximum pressure and engagement.” There have been few signs of actual engagement so far, though Pence expressed willingness to talk to the North Koreans.
The North might have succeeded for the moment in driving at least a symbolic wedge between the U.S. and South Korea, but there’s little indication that this can be sustained in the long term. Pence maintains there is “no daylight” between the U.S. and its regional allies on North Korea. The North Koreans invited Moon to Pyongyang, putting the South Korean president, who has yet to respond to the offer, in a position where he must choose between offending his closest ally, the United States, and forgoing the possibility, however slim, of peace with North Korea.
Ultimately, South Korea and the United States, as well as Japan, want North Korea to renounce its nuclear-weapons program. Pyongyang says it views that program as a deterrent against U.S. aggression. The Trump administration’s critics may be awarding the North Koreans a gold medal for its diplomacy at the Olympics, but it’s the period after the games that will matter. North Korea’s past actions suggest that it will revert to the policies that it’s best known for—at least until the next time sanctions begin to bite the regime. That’s when it’ll likely again trot out its “Army of Beauties” or the “Ivanka Trump of North Korea.”