Don’t be fooled by North Korea’s Winter Olympics charm offensive

While dispatching the celebrity singer Hyon Song-wol and the ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam to South Korea, Kim Jong-un has ordered the huge military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army to be brought forward to the day before the Games opens

Kim Sengupta
Monday 05 February 2018 15:50 GMT
North Korean figure skaters practice in South Korea ahead of the Winter Olympics
North Korean figure skaters practice in South Korea ahead of the Winter Olympics (Getty)

The arrival in Seoul of North Korea’s renowned pop diva Hyon Song-wol – whose hits include “Most Excellent Horse-Like Lady” – was presented as a symbol of how Pyongyang was drawing back from its warlike ways. The leader of the all-female Moranbong Band, and member of the National Workers Party Central Committee, will sing on the opening day of South Korea’s Winter Olympics later this week.

The presence of Hyon, said to be a former lover of Kim Jong-un, was itself something of a surprise as she had been supposedly executed on charges of producing pornographic films. Her photogenic tour, in a grey fur jacket, to examine the facilities where the North’s Samjiyon Orchestra will play was followed avidly in the media.

Pyongyang has now announced that another public figure from North Korea will attend the games, albeit someone perhaps not so well known as Hyon. It is the ceremonial head of state: the 90 year old Kim Yong-nam, who had shown great abilities of self-preservation in surviving the last three lethally autocratic rulers of the country.

The announcement of his visit was seen by some as yet more sign of a thaw and offering hope of peace breaking out after months of incendiary confrontation between North Korea and the US and its allies in the region.

But Western officials in South Korea and neighbouring states are convinced that the rapprochement is not what it seems. The regime, they insist, has not changed its nature. And, to prove the point, US Vice-President Mike Pence will be accompanied on his trip to Seoul for the games by Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto was jailed in the North and died after his return to America, from injuries, it was claimed, he had received in custody. Mr Warmbier and his wife, Cindy, were guests of Donald Trump at last week’s State of the Union address.

An aide to Pence said “The Vice President will remind the world that everything the North Koreans do at the Olympics is a charade to cover up the fact that they are the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet. At every opportunity, the VP will point out the reality of the oppression in North Korea by a regime that has enslaved its people. We will not allow North Korea’s propaganda to hijack the messaging of the Olympics.”

The annual military exercise between South Korea and the US, which Pyongyang regularly and vehemently objects to, has been postponed for the Olympics, but will be held afterwards.

Kim Jong-un, it is pointed out by his many adversaries, makes a point of sending out ambiguous messages. While dispatching the celebrity singer and the ceremonial head of state, he has ordered the huge military parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army to be brought forward from 25 April to the day before the Olympics opening. The procession of might will feature long-range missiles of the type with which Pyongyang has threatened to annihilate the US.

North Korea reacted to negative media coverage over the parade with an angry statement before cancelling a cultural function it was due to hold jointly with the South.

“Don’t get deceived by all this about sending people to the Olympics, these are just gestures to confuse” Shogo Toyota, Japanese government’s senior co-ordinator for Japan-US security affairs, told me today in Tokyo. “It means nothing. We don’t see them doing anything towards finding a peaceful solution. What we do know is Kim Jong-un intends to finish his nuclear project and his missile project as well, what they are presenting now is a false dialogue. They are trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the allies.”

A Pentagon analyst, who has spent half his working life studying North Korea was also adamant: “It’s deliberate, it’s the policy of ‘keep them guessing’. They think that it gives them an advantage in keeping true intention hidden. Our view is that the Olympics thing is window-dressing, they will continue with their nuclear programmes and their missiles until they are stopped.”

Successive US administrations have tried several options with Pyongyang’s irascible leadership. Bill Clinton attempted carrots and sticks in the form of sanctions and aids. George W Bush presented just sticks, sanctions. Barack Obama got too fed-up to offer either. Donald Trump is now offering sticks and tweets, with more sanctions and threats of military action, but also confusing messages on carrots.

During his presidential election campaign Trump declared that he would be prepared to receive Kim Jong-un in Washington and “have hamburgers with him ... What the hell is wrong with speaking? And you know what? It’s called opening a dialogue.” He was derided across the American political spectrum at the time, but North Korea’s state media praised him as “a very wise politician”.

North Korea announce high level delegation will attend Winter Olympics opening ceremony

Since getting to the White House Trump had been involved in loud trading of insults with Kim Jong-un and has threatened to “ totally destroy North Korea” before boasting that he had a “ bigger” nuclear button than the North Korean leader. But then he recently stated “I probably have a good relation with Kim Jong-un of North Korea” before claiming, falsely, that he said no such thing.

Trump’s campaign of threats has been conducted, inevitably, on Twitter. The language used by the US President and Kim Jong-un has been florid in its aggressiveness. But there is more method in the North Korean diatribes. A Japanese official pointed out: “Kim never uses Twitter, the noise from Pyongyang are official statements. These are not random, they study what Trump says and they respond in the way they think scores them points.”

Trump then claimed credit for the talks between the North and South before the Olympics saying “without our attitude this would never have happened. Who knows where it leads. Hopefully it’ll lead to success for the world.” South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who had been increasingly alarmed by the sabre-rattling from Washington, was quick to agree: “I think President Trump deserves big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks. It could be a resulting work for US-led sanctions and pressure.”

But, as is his wont, Trump then contradicted himself, reportedly asking the National Security Council to work on plans to give Kim Jong-un a “bloody nose”. His administration’s pick to be ambassador to South Korea, Victor Cha, was not put forward for nomination after he pointed out the dangerous inherent risks in carrying out a pre-emptive strike on a nuclear armed state.

President Moon has come in for criticism from the US and its partners for some of his peacemaking efforts. His predecessor, Park Geun-hye halted sending aid to the North in January 2016 after it conducted nuclear tests. This policy was reversed four months ago with the announcement of a $8m package despite a personal request from the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, not to go ahead with it at the present time. Japan’s government spokesman, Yoshihide Suga, said it could undermine international efforts to put pressure on North Korea. Washington and Tokyo hold that some of the aid was diverted to the military.

With the South Korean capital, Seoul, just 35 miles away from North Korean heavy artillery at the border, President Moon and his government are desperate to try and defuse the rising tension which may lead to a catastrophic war. His officials say they are hopeful that Olympics Diplomacy may yet work confounding the critics.

But some of the neighbours, as well as the US, remain strongly unconvinced. Taro Kono, the Japanese Foreign Minister, was blunt: “The Olympics and Paralympic Games are peaceful festivals and we all support the Republic of Korea [South] government’s efforts to make these events successful. That being said, we should not avert our eyes from the fact that North Korea relentlessly continues its nuclear and missile programmes.

“I am aware that some people argue now that North Korea is engaging in inter-Korea dialogue, we should reward them...I believe North Korea want to buy some time to continue with their nuclear programme, they simply want to get something out of this dialogue...We should not be naive about their intent, we should not be blinded by North Korea’s charm offensive.”

The hits of North Korea’s Hyon Song-wol also include “Footsteps of Soldiers” and “Lets Defend Socialism”. But she also did well with “Reunification Rainbow”; something those in the South trying to avoid Armageddon may find encouraging. They may also wish she gives a rendition at the ceremony of “Give Peace a Chance” which featured prominently in an exhibition about John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Seoul in 2010 – the year Pyongyang threatened to use its “nuclear weapon” to “destroy” the joint military exercise that year between the US and South Korea.

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