US disarmament ambassador Robert Wood warned yesterday during a Geneva forum hosted by the United Nations that the international community shouldn't be fooled by North Korea's recent warming of relations with the South, ostensibly catalyzed by the PyeongChange Winter Games.
“What I would call ‘the charm offensive’ frankly is fooling no one,” Wood said. Instead, he suspects the North is using the games as a propaganda tool to keep international pressure at bay while the rogue regime completes its first ICBM capable of accurately delivering a nuclear payload to the US mainland.
Now, in a move unprecedented in recent Korean history, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong will travel to South Korea to observe the games, where the two Koreas have created a joint women's field hockey team that is functioning as a symbol of Korean unity.
At first brush, the younger Kim's presence at the games might appear to be a fairly innocuous gesture. But in the complicated world of statecraft, US exports say it is functioning as a wedge that could blunt the impact of sanctions while driving a wedge between the US and South Korea. If the South allows her into the country, it could set the stage for further exemptions down the road.
In sending Kim Yo Jong, Pyongyang also appears to be thumbing its nose at sanctions imposed by the U.S., the United Nations and South Korea. Ms. Kim faces travel restrictions, as does Choe Hwi, a senior sports official whom Pyongyang also intends to dispatch. Air Koryo, the North Korean carrier that would likely convey them to the South, is also sanctioned.
It is unclear how this would be dealt with, but success in obtaining the relevant sanctions exemptions could prompt Pyongyang to make further demands down the road, such as the cancellation of U.S. military exercises and the resumption of shuttered inter-Korean economic projects, said Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul.
"It’s all a strategy to try to test and further weaken the sanctions regime and try to pull Seoul and Washington further apart," she said.
Meanwhile, US officials contend that the South has been blinkered into believing that the presence of a Kim dynasty member at the games could help set the stage for direct talks between the North and the US.
"We believe that the North’s announcement of the delegation shows its willingness to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula along with a message of celebration for the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games," a spokesman for the Blue House - the residence of South Korea's president - said.
It is unclear whether Kim Yo Jong would arrive in time for the opening ceremony on Friday evening in Pyeongchang, WSJ said.
A spokeswoman for the Blue House said the government would “make sure that there will be no inconvenience during the stay of the North’s high-level delegation.”
“Sending Ms. Kim as part of North Korea’s delegation shows that Kim Jong Un is trying to show that he really wants to improve relations with South Korea,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Seoul-based private think tank Sejong Institute. The decision also seems to have taken into account reports that U.S. President Donald Trump would send his daughter Ivanka to Pyeongchang, Mr. Cheong said.
Of course, the North has made similar gestures in the past, sending delegations to pan-Asian games.
But according to one official who spoke with WSJ, the delegations mostly focused on the games, and left the diplomacy for another day. The question now is, will this be the case in PyeongChang?