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Why is the United States wary of Olympics diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula?

Image credit: White House (Wikimedia: Creative Commons)

As provocative rhetoric and constant threats of nuclear war continue to define the state of the United States’ increasingly tense relationship with North Korea during the Trump presidency, South Korea is using the recently ended PyeongChang Winter Olympics to ease growing tension on the Korean Peninsula.

Months of unpredictable but peaceful negotiation between North and South Korean delegations led to a rare public display of unity between the hostile neighbours at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in February 2018, with athletes from the two nations marching under one flag, and even competing as a unified team in the women’s ice hockey competition.

At the opening ceremony and in various functions before and after the event, high-ranking officials from the United States, South Korea and North Korea were given the opportunity to communicate with each other. However, while South Korean President Moon Jae-in openly welcomed and interacted with his North Korean counterparts, US Vice President Mike Pence was criticised for ignoring the North Korean leader’s sister at the Opening Ceremony. It was later revealed that President Moon Jae-in and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had hoped Pence would interact with Kim Yo-jong.

The publicly televised image of Vice President Mike Pence’s refusal to follow President Moon Jae-in’s lead in shaking hands with the North Korean delegation during the opening ceremony emphasises the United States’ scepticism of South Korea’s new approach in dealing with its neighbour. While US Vice President Mike Pence co-operated with his South Korean counterparts by attending the Olympic Games, he was less supportive of his ally’s approach as he toured Asia, insisting that "the maximum pressure campaign is going to continue and intensify" with tougher sanctions on the North Korean regime coming soon. While South Korean president Moon Jae-in is focused on engagement with North Korea as a short-term strategy, US President Donald Trump and many senior members of his administration claim that engagement can only succeed when combined with maximum pressure.

The United States’ maximum pressure campaign on North Korea means that it is usually not willing to engage in even the most preliminary dialogue sessions unless denuclearisation is put on the table by the rogue regime. While South Korea has assured the US that existing sanctions will not be lifted in exchange for North Korean diplomatic co-operation, it is issues such as denuclearisation and tougher sanctions that threaten the possible success of this new avenue of communication.

While these complex issues are slowly dealt with behind the scenes, it is up to publicly visible members of all parties involved to embrace any available opportunity to demonstrate mutual respect with each other. While US Vice President Mike Pence’s words may hold more weight in the long-term, it is a simple gesture like a handshake that may be appreciated more by the international community. As Evan S. Medeiros, a former Asia advisor to President Barack Obama insists, "a handshake would have been a dramatic image, regardless of how it ultimately played out". It would have been a small step, but it would have been a small step in the right direction.

However, while the US has missed the opportunity to present positive optics at the Olympics, it can make an effort to put its scepticism aside and follow South Korea’s lead. There is no way of knowing whether this avenue of Olympics diplomacy can be maintained when the athletes, media and eyes of the world leave the Korean peninsula. All the US can do for now is support South Korea and its efforts to use its time in the global spotlight to pursue peace, an outcome that would benefit not just the Korean Peninsula but also the United States and the rest of the world.

Meghna Srinivas is the United States Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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