This is part one of Poking around the Peninsula, a three part series on the rationale and sanity shared between the United States, North, and South Korea.
In the first few weeks of January, relations between North and South Korea have thawed a bit. A key line of communication has re-opened, and delegations from the two countries have met at the demilitarized border to discuss future Korean relations and the possibility of North Koreans joining the Winter Olympic games, which will begin February 7th in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang.
On Tuesday, January 9th, the two countries agreed to allow North Korea to participate in the Games. The qualifying athletes from North Korea are two figure skaters, Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik.
Meanwhile, the United States is talking itself into a panic about the perceived threat from North Korea. In response to Kim Jong-Un’s comments about his (potential) nuclear capacity, President Trump began bragging about the relative size of his button, and his willingness to press it. United States Senators are calling on America to throw a fit should North Korea be allowed in the Olympics.
To be fair, North Korea has a history of extending false olive branches and then using the additional breathing room to continue its arsenal build-up. But despite the somewhat well-warranted skepticism from the United States and others in the international community, allowing North Korea to join the Olympics is a low cost diplomatic step that might have a legitimately powerful impact at easing Korean tensions in the long run.
The part of North Korea that makes it scary to the West is the same part that makes it a dangerous threat: its isolation.
North Korea’s isolation is what keeps there from being not one official communication channel between North Korea and the United States. This lack of a channel increases the odds of an accidental military escalation, as one country falsely perceives that the other is planning an attack and plans a counterstrike in retaliation.
North Korea’s isolation is what has helped the country avoid much of the economic pain from sanctions in the past, since there are relatively few countries that have any significant economic partnership with them. Which is to say, only China.
Historically, North Korea has been at its most dangerous when it is backed against a corner or separated from the rest of the world. After failing to get a united Korean team among other concession before the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, North Korea boycotted the event and later bombed a Korean Air plane, killing over 100 people. North Korea was also not a part of the 2002 World Cup, which were jointly held in South Korea and Japan. That year, a North Korean warship shot down a South Korean patrol boat, killing six soldiers.
Counterintuitively, the world is safer when North Korea is in the room, rather than isolated from afar. When a dangerous country participates in major world events, they must put their skin in the game, invest their own resources and people to join the spectacle. It is this act of both financial and emotional investment, as sports are quite important to the North Koreans, that accomplishes two good outcomes
- A near complete elimination of the possibility of increased aggression during the course of the games, unless the United States provokes matters. And-
- An increased openness from the North Koreans towards the rest of the world.
The more North Korea invests in affairs outside of their borders, the safer everyone will become and the less the North can afford to avoid the demands of other nations in the future.
A common conservative critic of the Obama administration was of what is referred to as virtue signaling — the act of talking or making gestures about how good you are, without actually taking any action to improve the world.
Now here is Senator Lindsey Graham on January 1st, before the Korean delegations met.
“Allowing Kim Jong Un’s North Korea to participate in #WinterOlympics would give legitimacy to the most illegitimate regime on the planet.
I’m confident South Korea will reject this absurd overture and fully believe that if North Korea goes to the Winter Olympics, we do not.”
What we see here is a desire to virtue signal from the South Carolinian.
For America to boycott the Olympics would be to claim that we care about North Korea’s abuses, but not enough to actually take the steps that would lead to a more stable Korean peninsula.
Whether the North Koreans were allowed into the Olympics or not, they would still have the same hungry citizens, the same leadership, the same nuclear arsenal, and the same humanitarian concerns. In other words, nothing about the North Korean situation changes or becomes safer by the U.S. making a spectacle of ourselves and not showing up to the Olympics. The only difference is that our allies in South Korea will feel that their diplomatic efforts were slighted, and the North will further retreat into their anti-America posture.
For the U.S. to push-back against North Korean Olympic participation would be to ignore some of the lowest hanging fruit in decades to bring North Korea into world affairs. It requires next to nothing in additional resources on our part and futhers the mission of moving towards U.S. independence from South Korea, militarily. Which we will discuss in the next segment of this series.