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The Political Gamesmanship Behind The 2018 Winter Olympics


We are going to start the program today with a major story of the past week - the Olympic Games. Not the athletic games, though, but rather the diplomatic side - the political gamesmanship, if you will, behind the Games. Two images frame the story. At the opening ceremony, we saw U.S. Vice President Mike Pence viewing the event from a VIP box just a few feet from Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader - many say dictator - Kim Jong Un. And then last night, an ice hockey game - North and South Koreans playing on one unified team.

Much diplomatic maneuvering went into making each of these scenes a reality, but to what end and at what cost? We called three distinguished observers of Korea and the region to help us understand it. Let's start in South Korea at the opening ceremony.


IVAN WATSON: Athletes from North and South marching together. A male athlete from South Korea, a female ice hockey player from North Korea carrying the flags together.

JEAN LEE: They're such a symbolic team of people from countries that are formally enemies.

MARTIN: That's Jean Lee talking to us via Skype from Seoul, South Korea. She's a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center and one of the few Western journalists who's spent significant time in North Korea. She opened the Associated Press bureau in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2012. And she described the emotions she felt seeing North and South Korean athletes marching together.

LEE: It is emotional. I think that people probably think I'm very cynical. I'm cynical because I've seen so much, and I understand the politics that underpin all of this. But the Korean side of me and the American side of me is also just feeling very emotional about what's been accomplished but what hasn't been accomplished.

MARTIN: Behind that symbolism is the reality that North and South Korea have not, to this day, signed a peace treaty to end the Korean War.

LEE: And this is really the backdrop of everything that is happening in this region. This war has not technically ever ended. And that gives the North Korean leader the rationale and legitimacy to build the weapons that he's building and to tell his people, we are still at war with the United States. This is so central to the North Korean ideology and really is the backdrop of what's happening in the region.

MARTIN: Given that backdrop, I asked Jean Lee how South Koreans react to see their country warming up to North Korea, at least when it comes to the Olympic Games.

LEE: When we look at it from the outside, it seems so picture-perfect. It's like you've got the Koreans marching in together under this unified flag. You've got a team practicing together with all the ups and downs that come with the language difference, the culture difference, difference in training. Like, Olympics are a moment to come together and show that the Koreans are united. But what you don't see if you're looking at it from the outside is that South Koreans have much more complicated feelings.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Overnight, North Korea announced it has successfully launched a new type of ballistic missile that can reach any location on the U.S. mainland.

SAIMA MOHSIN: He's chosen his New Year's address, Kim Jong Un, to announce being close to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile.

LEE: This is just a couple weeks after the region was under the threat of possible nuclear war. It's been a year of protracted tensions with North Korea testing underground nuclear devices and testing ballistic missiles. So there's certainly a lot more skepticism here in South Korea about whether these gestures can lead to any lasting peace.

MARTIN: With that in mind, we wanted to understand what those diplomatic gestures look like and the long-term effect they could have. So we called in former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert. He served from 2014 to 2017, and he began by explaining Vice President Pence's role in Pyeongchang.

MARK LIPPERT: I think the vice president had a very clear-eyed mission of reminding the world that, you know, the Kim Jong Un regime is a really nasty and bad regime.

MARTIN: Well, what was noteworthy was the president of South Korea greeting warmly the sister of Kim Jong Un and then sitting down where the vice president's stonily facing ahead.

LIPPERT: Yeah. I've been through these sort of diplomatic moments, if you were, in time in the White House and in the Pentagon. And I tend to think that they get a lot of heat at the moment and ultimately don't have a long trajectory on impacting policy. So I tend to discount and downplay. It was interesting theater, I think. But the real, I think, proof in the pudding will be U.S.-ROK coordination on what could be an inter-Korean summit, exercises coming up this spring. That's the real test, I think, of where the two sides are going forward in a policy approach towards North Korea.

LIPPERT: If that's what's at stake for the U.S. and South Korea, Ambassador Lippert says that for North Korea, it's about currying favor with the South Korean people.

LIPPERT: The North Koreans consistently look for opportunities to gain any kind of humanitarian aid, any assistance, any sort of means that would generate hard capital or help budget shortfalls, right? And in the short term, perhaps this could lead to more donations to organizations that do some work in North Korea. The old playbook that I'm not saying will work here, but the old North Korean playbook is to try to gather funds or extract funds out of South Korea, which is an interesting dynamic because it's an old play. But the situation in the North and the South is dramatically different from when this play was effectuated a couple of decades ago.

MARTIN: And this creates a fine line for the U.S. and South Korea to walk. Here's Jean Lee.

LEE: Cynically, you might say we're handing the North Koreans a propaganda opportunity here because it's true that the North Koreans have hijacked the Olympics (laughter). I mean, there has been not enough discussion about the actual athletics at this (laughter) Winter Olympics, and it's been so focused on the politics.

But on the other side, you do need to look at it as an opportunity. The Olympic Games offer neutral ground. They offer the chance for sports diplomacy to provide a neutral space for leaders that otherwise can't meet or interact because of their national politics and international policy. And that's what we saw yesterday. We saw the first indications that they had some communication. So I think it's important to look at it both ways because I don't think we should be fooled into thinking it's not about politics because it is. This is both North Korea and South Korea taking advantage of an opening.

MARTIN: North Korea taking advantage of an opening - that's exactly what concerns Wallace Gregson. He's a retired Marine lieutenant general and a former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs. And he also spent a year as the chief operating officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

WALLACE GREGSON: We need to look at the game that Kim Jong Un is playing. He has perceived the opportunity to start driving a wedge between the Republic of Korea and the United States, driving a wedge into our alliance. Some of the things that he - that have not escaped notice is that President Moon really wants to have a successful Olympics to bolster his political credentials, to burnish his legacy. So that induces certain opportunities for Kim Jong Un.

MARTIN: What do you make of how the opening ceremony was choreographed from a diplomatic standpoint? Knowing what you know about the politics of the region and especially the politics of the current moment, you know, what do you make about how the whole sort of thing was choreographed?

GREGSON: Personally, I think that we are probably being overly grateful for North Korea's participation in the Olympics. They did not go through the usual procedure with the International Olympic Committee to gain admission to the Olympics. They were shoe-horned in at the last minute for obvious diplomatic reasons.

And one appearance at an Olympics with their cheerleaders, their bands, their athletes and everything does not change the nature of the regime. It may change the impression of the nature of the regime. We seem - the global community seem to have a touching faith that this time it will change. This time we'll figure out what Kim really wants - whether it's Kim the current Kim or Kim the father or Kim the grandfather - and will change the fundamental tension on the peninsula and will change the fundamental nature of the regime.

I don't think so. I think we have a long way to go. I do not believe that we should suspend negotiations with anybody or suspend all contact just because we have serious, bone-deep differences. I mean, despite whatever else we might do with sanctions and everything, we have to maintain some contact. So we have to be realistic about what we're dealing with.

MARTIN: The question now is whether what happens on the sidelines of the games has any effect going forward. General Gregson takes the long view.

GREGSON: We tend to treat every problem as something that's got to be solved by next Thursday. This is not one of those things. George Shultz, when he was secretary of state, used to talk about problems you can solve and problems you have to manage. And this one is definitely in the second category.

I don't see any way that Kim is going to give up nuclear weapons. We and the rest of the world have made enough statements about how he belongs in jail at The Hague at best - and other things at worse. He's got no reason to believe that we will treat him kindly if he denuclearizes the country. But his real goal is unification of the peninsula, and he's got the political opportunities now to do some damage. We need a long-term strategy, and we need to do something, in my opinion, that looks like containment.

MARTIN: For the United States, according to former Ambassador Lippert, it comes down to one question.

LIPPERT: How do you make progress on the nuclear missile issue? Which usually has been something that has not been deeply discussed or a lot of progress has been made in this channel, at least since the early '90s. So that's really what will be, I think, paramount going forward in the minds of U.S. policymakers.

MARTIN: Just a few hours ago, Vice President Mike Pence said, quote, "there is no daylight between the United States, the Republic of Korea and Japan on the need to continue to isolate North Korea economically and diplomatically until they abandon their nuclear and ballistic missile program," unquote. So we will be watching - and not just what happens on the ice rinks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.