THE Winter Olympics games in the mountainous Pyeongchang region of South Korea are happening in mostly interesting circumstances. The Games, being held only 80km from the North Korean border, come at a time of heightened concerns over the North’s military capabilities.
After several missile and nuclear tests, North Korea, an unpredictable state, may have a nuclear weapon that could reach as far as the United States.
Whatever happens, the Olympic Games may provide a pause in the diplomatic row between North Korea and the US over the former’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes.
The supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un has witnessed the role played by the US in having ruined Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine. These countries were accused of threatening peace with weapons of mass destruction. Kim Jong-un can safely assume that the US might do the same to North Korea.
North Korea is advancing its technology in such a way that could soon produce nuclear bombs for use, and worse, for sale to other rogue states. According to a confidential report by independent United Nations’ monitors, North Korea had supplied weapons to Syria and Myanmar.
Amidst this frightening insights, the Winter Olympics may yet bring renewed hopes of a unified Korea.
In reality, optimism about becoming a single nation has shifted since South Korea hosted Summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988.
On Nov 29, 1987, a bomb hidden by North Korean agents exploded on board Korean Airlines Flight 858, killing all 115 passengers and crew. It was later learned that the bombing was intended to scare off participants of the Olympic Games scheduled to be held in Seoul in the summer of that year.
The two agents who had placed the bomb in an overhead compartment of the ill-fated plane in Bahrain were later arrested. One committed suicide, while the other, a young Korean woman named Kim Hyon-hui, failed to kill herself after biting into a cyanide pill. She was taken back to Seoul. Though she was sentenced to death, Kim hyon-hui was pardoned by South Korean President Roh Tae-woo, who saw her as a victim of North Korean brainwashing.
Since the 1950-53 Korean War, relations between the North and South have remained uneasy.
But after a series of meetings in January this year, the two Koreas eventually agreed to march together bearing a united Korea flag with the hope that the Olympics will function as an initial contact point to repair their frayed relations.
In a surprise move, Kim Jong-un agreed to send a 500-strong delegation to the Games, including his sister Kim Yo-jong, a senior politburo official. Dispatching such top-level members of the delegation from Pyongyang to Pyeongchang may be read as a willingness of the North to improve its relations with the South.
There has not been much co-operation between the countries under the past two governments in South Korea. As the North boycotted the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, the willingness of such top-level members of delegation to travel to Pyeongchang is significant.
Some commented that the visit has charmed and intrigued the South Korean public but are still sceptical about the North’s sincerity in improving relations.
Hong Joon-pyo, leader of South Korea’s main opposition party said: “The government is being dragged around by Kim Jong-un’s false peace offensive and political show”.
Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono warned of North Korea using the Olympic Games as a chance to improve its image, and the world should not be blinded by Pyongyang’s recent “charm offensive”.
For South Korea’s liberal president Moon Jae-in, the Games are a “precious opportunity” to seek peace in the Korean peninsula since it was divided in 1945. Moon was the chief of staff to former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and a strong proponent of the “Sunshine Policy”, whose aims were to improve relations between the two Koreas from 1998 to 2008.
Now, with an invitation to meet Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, Moon, the son of North Korean refugees, knows the risks. He has to take a cautious approach to the invitation. “The current state of the Korean Peninsula is so dizzying because South Korea, North Korea and the US are thinking too differently,” said the liberal Kyunghyang Sinmun newspaper.
Moon also knows that he cannot change the North Korean regime, but with a policy of engagement, he hopes to open the eyes of a few in the North to the importance of peace and solidarity. For Moon, “Both the South and the North must not allow the repeat of the unfortunate past where our fate was determined with not regard to our opinions”.
The writer, a former lecturer of UiTM Shah Alam and International Islamic University Malaysia, Gombak, is a Fulbright scholar and Japan Institute of International Affairs fellow