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Sports diplomacy may not fix the North Korea problem — but it could be a start to something

Key Points
  • The Olympics can help resolve North Korea's nuclear impasse, but Seoul and Washington will need to play their cards carefully, experts said
  • Proponents of the "freeze for freeze" nuclear scheme say it's the best way to benefit from current positive sentiment
The winter Olympics agreement between South and North Korea was expected
Winter Olympics deal between North and South Korea a 'small step'
North Korea came to talks because it 'needed a little respite'

Next month could see North and South Korean athletes marching together at the Olympics for the first time in over a decade — following a year of escalating hostilities over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile program.

But once the Games are done, many fear North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un will resume his belligerence. That's where sports diplomacy can help; officials are expected to capitalize on the Olympics to try to carry forward denuclearization talks.

Kim's decision to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang "could be the beginning of an overall diplomatic dialogue," said John Park, adjunct lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School. "There's hope that as more dialogue channels open up, there can be a focus on security issues."

For now, discussions between Seoul and Pyongyang — the neighbors held talks for the first time in two years on Tuesday — are focused on North Korea's participation at the Olympics and reducing antagonism until the Winter Paralympics in March.

'Freeze for freeze'

The forthcoming Winter Games will be North Korea's first since 2010. Aside from boycotting the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul, the pariah state has participated in all Summer Games since 1972.

"The question is really whether or not it is possible to build momentum through the process of North Korea participation in the Olympics that could lead to sustained tension reduction," said Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. "That probably will involve negotiations with the United States."

North Korean players celebrate the East Asian Champions following their 2-0 victory the EAFF E-1 Women's Football Championship between Japan and North Korea on December 15, 2017 in Japan
Hiroki Watanabe/Getty Images

Proponents of the "freeze for freeze" solution say it's the best way to benefit from the evolving winter thaw. The strategy involves pausing annual US-South Korea military exercises, as long as the North refrains from further nuclear and missile tests. The administrations of President Donald Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-In recently announced the drills will be delayed until after the Olympics.

"My hope is that this current diplomatic opening will result in a de facto freeze-for-freeze," which should last until the Olympics are done, said Tom Collina, policy director at Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear weapons group. "The goal now is to get the U.S. involved in talks so there is enough dialogue for the dual freeze to be extended for as long as productive talks continue."

The White House has previously rejected the idea of a double freeze, however.

Meanwhile, China, a country that also wants to see an end to U.S.-South Korean drills, is watching developments closely. "From a Chinese perspective, what is happening right now between the two Koreas is viewed as the beginning stages of the freeze-for-freeze diplomatic approach," said Park.

A short-lived truce?

Many believe the Olympics will produce short-lived peace and one-off gains, such as family reunions, since fundamentals of the nuclear deadlock remain unchanged. Kim wants the world to recognize his country as a nuclear state before denuclearization negotiations can take place, but the White House has said it won't acquiesce to that demand.

Anti-North Korea activists stage a demonstration in Seoul on January 9, 2018 after North Korea said it was willing to send athletes and a high-level delegation to the forthcoming Winter Olympics.
ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

Historically, sports diplomacy tends to produce temporary gains "so, we might see a short-term improvement in conditions on the Korean peninsula, but then a falling-back into the longer-term pattern of hostilities and tensions," explained Andray Abrahamian, executive director of Choson Exchange, a non-profit focused on North Korea, and researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Olympics could improve relations between Seoul, Washington and Pyongyang but it will be tough since there are multiple parties involved, he continued. Previous incidents of sports diplomacy have mostly involved just two players, such as India and Pakistan's cricket interactions or ping-pong games between China and the U.S.

In the past, North Korea's presence at international sporting events, such as the Asian Games or soccer matches, has failed to defuse nuclear pressures. And the regime's sudden interest in the Winter Olympics could simply be a geopolitical maneuver to win concessions from Seoul, according to some critics.

Unless Pyongyang or Washington changes its tone, "security issues won't be resolved by any short-term reduction in tensions that surrounds the Olympics," said Chad O'Carroll, CEO and founder of research firm Korea Risk Group.