Monday, February 12, 2018

Hard Olympic Security Choices: What to Watch for in Pyeongchang

Shannon Togawa Mercer, Lawfare; original article contains links.

Pyeongchang, South Korea image from article
This isn’t the first time the Koreas have used sporting events to facilitate reunification discussions and deescalation of tensions. In 1991, North and South Korea signed a treaty re-establishing communication channels and creating some commitments of nonaggression. At the same time, the Koreas sent a unified team to the World Table Tennis Championships. In 2000, the two countries marched under the same Korean Unification Flag at the Sydney Olympics and in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. But the compromise struck for the current Winter Olympics is the first attempt to bridge the sporting divide between the two Koreas since 2006—the same year that North Korea began testing its nuclear arsenal.

So, why now? Best guesses focus on South Korea’s key concern: being in North Korea’s crosshairs while President Trump is rattling his sabers. The Olympics give both Koreas an opportunity to take control of the public diplomacy. For President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, the probability of being attacked by North Korea rises and falls with the capriciousness of the United States government’s—more accurately: the president’s—bellicosity. Local efforts to stabilize the peninsula are efforts well spent from Moon’s perspective.

The North’s perspective is, as always, a little harder to glean. There has been some speculation that North Korea is reaching out because Kim Jong Un is feeling the bite of recent sanctions and is thus offering a charm offensive to counterbalance the missile threats. Likely adding to the North’s anxiety, Vice President Pence has also alluded to a new round of “the toughest and most aggressive . . . economic sanctions on North Korea ever.” Pence emphasized that the United States will “continue to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs once and for all”—a bleak prospect indeed. Furthermore, North Korea is clearly seeking to forge a warmer relationship with South Korea, putting distance between the South and the United States. The recent disagreements between President Moon and President Trump are not just about military and diplomatic matters vis a vis the North. They are also about economic and trade matters. President Moon’s belief that he holds a “veto” over any American preemptive military action is in direct opposition to the Trump administration’s stance on its latitude to conduct military operations in the region. As one New York Times article suggests, making nice to the South could be North Korea acting “in the hope of driving a wedge into [South Korea’s] seven-decade alliance with the United States.”

The United States, like the Koreas, has not missed the opportunity the games present to make its own political points about the politics of the Korean Peninsula: Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier—who recently died following imprisonment in the North—has accompanied Pence to South Korea. Reports from opening ceremonies also paint a picture of Pence publicly avoiding the North Korean contingent, quickly leaving a reception in which North Koreans were present and avoiding a handshake with Kim Yong Nam.

While the choice to accommodate North Korean participation in the Olympics reduces the likelihood of the North attacking the games in some fashion, it also creates its own security dilemmas. South Korea had to grant the North Koreans an exception to its ban on North Korean ships in South Korean waters in order to allow the ferry delivering a number of musicians, dancers and singers to the Olympic ceremonies—a ban enacted in response to the 2010 sinking of a South Korean military vessel by a North Korean torpedo. On top of the exception to the ban, the North Korean ship requested fuel, which sparked debate about whether the provision of fuel to the North Koreans would violate a United Nations resolution limiting fuel exports to the North. Complicating things further, Samsung, a South Korean company, donated cell phones to Olympic athletes and officials. There is now considerable consternation as to whether giving North Korean athletes cell phones would violate United Nations sanctions on exporting luxury goods to North Korea, or prohibitions on goods that could be used for military ends. Even hockey sticks fall under the luxury good ban, making it necessary for the North Korean hockey players to return their hockey sticks to the International Ice Hockey Federation before they head home. North Korean athletes cannot wear uniforms made by United States companies because of American sanctions. ...

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