After months of increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula in 2017, South Korea’s efforts to have North Korea participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics may have yielded an opportunity for dialogue in the form of Kim Jong-un’s recent summit invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. If President Moon accepts, a South-North summit could provide an opportunity to test whether diplomacy can resolve the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. However, testing that premise may require the current pause in tensions to last beyond the Winter Olympics, which may require creative diplomacy.
The timing for a potential summit is unclear at this stage and it could still not come to pass, but Kim Jong-un invited President Moon to North Korea for a summit at the earliest possible date. President Moon responded by suggesting that the right conditions should be in place for a summit, including North Korean talk with the United States. There have been early indications that the United States may be willing to do that, but all sides may need to find a way to maintain the current calm long enough for dialogue to have an opportunity.
While North Korea has refrained so far from conducting additional tests during the Winter Olympic period in PyeongChang, it has already suggested that if military exercises resume, the U.S.-Korea alliance would be at fault for raising tensions and that it wants the exercises to end.
China could play an important role in maintaining the current Olympic pause, but it may need to change tactics to do so. For much of the past year, China has sought to convince the United States and North Korea to hold talks to resolve their differences over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. However, those efforts were built around the premise of a freeze-for-freeze where North Korea would freeze its nuclear weapons and missile programs in exchange for a freeze in joint U.S.-South Korea military exercises.
China’s freeze-for-freeze proposal never gained traction with either the United States or North Korea. It would have required the United States and South Korea to give up their right to defensive exercises in exchange for a promise from North Korea not to continue weapons programs that the United Nations Security Council had already sanctioned North Korea for pursuing. The freeze on North Korea’s part would also have been virtually impossible to verify and potentially encouraged North Korea to demand more constraints on the U.S.-Korea alliance in exchange for not continuing its weapons development.
At the same time, Pyongyang has shown little interest in stopping its tests on a long-term basis. North Korea’s progress on its nuclear and missile programs suggests that Pyongyang was committed to concluding its weapons tests before entering into any negotiations. The freeze would have provided one advantage to Pyongyang – it would have been fairly easy to verify if the United States and South Korea were refraining from conducting military exercises.
Rather than a freeze-for-freeze, China should encourage the United States and North Korea to commit to a pause after the Winter Olympics conclude. The United States would agree to refrain from adding additional sanctions designations. Current sanctions would remain in place, but the U.S. would not actively seek to increase sanctions further while the pause was in effect. In return, North Korea would agree not to conduct any additional tests.
During the pause, the goal would be for the United States and North Korea, preferably with the other four parties to the Six Party Talks, to conduct exploratory dialogues to see if there is a basis for negotiations based around the September 2005 joint statement. The goal would not be to finalize those talks, but to see what areas of agreement may exist, where new discussions would be needed, and whether there was a viable diplomatic path forward.
Whether the United States and North Korea agree to a post-Olympic pause or not, Chinese officials should be quietly talking to U.S. and North Korean officials to see if there is a creative way to prevent tensions from rising again after the Olympics conclude. Moon Jae-in has created an opening, but it will require creativity on everyone’s part to see if it can become something more.