North Korea’s Olympic charm offensive
North Korea leveraged its presence at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this week, attempting to thaw relations with the South and drive a wedge between Seoul and the Trump administration. Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, 30, met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in at the presidential palace in Seoul, and invited him to make a historic visit to her brother in Pyongyang. After that, Vice President Mike Pence, who led the U.S. delegation at the Games, said the U.S. could be open to direct talks with Pyongyang without conditions. But Pence also ratcheted up the pressure on Kim’s regime by announcing a new round of sanctions, which he promised would be the “toughest” yet. Kim’s regime would get no sanctions relief, he said, without taking concrete steps toward denuclearization. “But if you want to talk,” said Pence, “we’ll talk.”
North Korea tried to project a softer image at the Games, with Kim’s sister and North Korean athletes leading a charm offensive. During the opening ceremony, the tyrant’s sister was seated just a few feet from Pence; he ignored her, and was criticized by some South Koreans for remaining seated when athletes from the two Koreas entered the stadium together behind a “unification” flag. Pence’s aides defended the vice president, saying he would not applaud “the most oppressive regime on earth.”
What the columnists said
“The toughest event at this year’s Winter Olympics has turned out to be the diplomatic lunge,” said Walter Russell Mead in The Wall Street Journal, and Kim Yo Jong won good marks from the judges in the media. Journalists went into “full fanboy mode” over Kim, cooing over her “barely-there makeup” and “sphinx-like smile,” and cheering as she directed lots of side-eye at “a dour Mike Pence.” Fortunately, President Moon told her she had to negotiate directly with the U.S.
The fawning over Kim Yo Jong was disgusting, said Max Boot in WashingtonPost.com. As the emissary of a vicious, totalitarian dictatorship, she is complicit in countless crimes against humanity—including extermination, enslavement, torture, forced abortions, religious persecution, and assassinations. She may be putting a bright new face on the regime, but “the Kim family strategy has remained unchanged since the 1950s”: persuade the U.S. to remove its troops from the South, and then extend its “gulag across the entire Korean Peninsula.”
There have been some “good vibes” in Pyeongchang, said Robin Wright in The New Yorker, including the prospect of the first North-South summit in more than a decade. But how long will it last? The U.S. and South Korea are set to resume their annual joint military exercises in April, after postponing them “in deference to the Olympics.” If Kim reacts with his own display of military might—like a nuclear or missile test—the Trump administration could hit back with a limited “bloody nose” strike, and things could rapidly snowball into catastrophe. “The glow from the Olympics may be short-lived—and, in history books, little more than a diplomatic illusion.” ■