Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

The West risks missing a chance at peace if it continues to treat North Korea's change of heart with cynicism

Could it be that Trump’s bombast over the airwaves cut through in Pyongyang in a way that conventional diplomacy had failed to do?

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 15 February 2018 17:40 GMT
Ice couple: figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok (left) and Kim Ju-Sik of North Korea
Ice couple: figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok (left) and Kim Ju-Sik of North Korea (AFP/Getty)

Winter sports have never been my forte. It’s not just the very thought of hurtling down mountains; after all, you can glide sedately along the cross-country track a la Angela Merkel. It’s more the cold, the snow and the ice. Oh, I know about the rewards: the scenery, the deep blue skies, the adrenaline and the whole après ski thing. But I prefer contemplating snow-capped anything from afar.

This does not mean, though, that I shun televised winter sports, still less the Olympics. In some ways, my aversion to the cold makes it more alluring. And on Wednesday evening, by pure chance, I watched the North Korean couple – Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik – competing in the pairs figure-skating, in South Korea, and holding their own among the best in the world.

The spectacle produced some intriguing commentary – from the BBC, at least. On the one hand, they pointed out how extraordinary it was to have North Koreans skating at the Pyeongchang Olympics and being cheered into the arena, not only by the North’s automaton cheer-leaders, but by everyone else as well. Indeed.

On the other, it was noted that this particular pair had been regulars on the international circuit for a while, though no one really knew how they had reached the level they had in a country as isolated as North Korea. The inference was that they were members of a tiny elite, to whom the normal rules of an oppressive system did not apply.

North Korea cheerleading squad 'army of beauties' at the Winter Olympics

Which may well be true. Another member of that elite, it should be recalled, is the country’s brash young leader, Kim Jong-un, who received part of his education in Switzerland, uses the internet and enjoys computer games. Remember, too, his playboy half-brother – Kim Jong-nam, murdered a year ago at Kuala Lumpur airport – who seems to have spent most of his adult life sampling the casinos and fleshpots of Asia. A very few, it seems, are allowed to break out of the Hermit Kingdom, if only for a spell.

The mixed messages about the North Korean skaters, however, highlighted – or so it seemed to me – something else: a reluctance on the part of the foreign policy establishment, including the media, to look good news in the face, especially when it has not been expected.

How long ago was it –in fact, a bare six weeks – that Kim Jong-un and the US President were trading very public, very macho, insults, culminating in Donald Trump’s memorable boast that his nuclear button was “much bigger and more powerful” than Kim’s and, what is more, “my button works”.

Even the most hardened pessimist would have to admit that between then and now there has been something of a mood swing. Less than three weeks after the “big button” exchange, North Korea suddenly acted on overtures in Kim’s New Year address to broach talks with the South, and even participated in the Olympics. The IOC delayed its deadline for entries, permitted North Korea’s participation, and the next thing we knew was that North and South were concocting a joint ice hockey team, the North’s nonagenarian de facto head of state was on his way to Seoul, and Kim announced that his sister – his sister – would be going to the opening ceremony, too.

Far from hailing these developments as the possible start of a North-South thaw, however, the Western response seemed – to me, at least, – both fearful and curmudgeonly. Kim Jong-un was suspected of the basest of motives. Might he not be deviously stringing the South along, it was asked, just waiting to demand all sorts of impossible concessions at the last moment that would cast the Seoul government as the villain if it refused?

And was Kim not also staging a vast military parade in Pyongyang on the eve of the official Olympic opening? Well, of course, he was. No self-respecting national leader, least of all an autocrat in the mould of Kim, can be seen to be weak in front of his own people. Shows of strength have a habit of going hand in hand with diplomatic U-turns.

As the North Korean nuclear threat vanished from the headlines, however, it was only to be replaced with another menace from the North. Kim’s very presentable little sister, Kim Yo-jong, was accused of stealing the limelight, diluting the world’s attention that should have been Seoul’s, and presenting an image of the North that was scandalously at odds with the cruel and earth-scorched reality. Don’t allow yourself to be fooled, was the message.

That she was received in Seoul at the highest level and filmed handing over an invitation to President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang was also somehow seen as out of order, another trick to gain diplomatic advantage. Surely it would all turn sour even before the Olympic glow over the South had faded. The North Korean threat was still there.

Well, maybe; but maybe not. Caution is, of course, advisable. A regime that can turn on a dime to produce a charm offensive can as easily turn again. But there are risks, too, in being unduly negative. To rule out any prospect of a policy shift in Pyongyang, and to dismiss the North’s overtures as a devious ploy, could mean missing the biggest opportunity for years to improve the climate in North-East Asia.

So let’s look at how what has happened could be assessed in a different way. Could it be that Trump’s bombast over the airwaves cut through in Pyongyang in a way that conventional diplomacy had failed to do? It might have been that Kim had encountered someone stronger and more belligerent than he was – as one bully to another. But it could also have been that he felt he had actually achieved some of what he had sought with his nuclear threats – for North Korea to be taken seriously and engaged with, rather than treated as a naughty child.

Nor should the use by potentates – and not just potentates – of close relatives as personal representatives and trusted go-betweens – be discounted as a ploy. Rather than being designed to detract from the South’s Olympic show, Kim Jong-yo’s trip to Seoul might rather be seen as evidence of her brother’s serious intent and esteem.

And what might have changed the equation? How about the US Secretary of State’s low-key offer of direct talks without preconditions that he made in December? Repeated in Seoul by Vice-President Mike Pence this week (once he had done cold-shouldering the North Koreans for the benefit of the US audience back home), this is what first broke the deadlock. There have been concessions on all sides.

So while the doomwatchers see the Olympic thaw as, at best, a deceptive interlude before the nuclear stand-off inevitably resumes, I would argue, for more optimism. A basis has been laid for detente; there is a real chance now to step back from the brink. The risk now is less that the North is insincere, than that suspicion and cynicism everywhere cause this chance to be missed.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in