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North Korea has embraced the Olympics – but don't expect any political optimism to last

Key Points
  • North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympic Games has been lauded as a step in the right direction, with South Korea rolling out the red carpet for its estranged neighbor.
  • But this optimism has not extended beyond the Korean peninsula, with experts believing that it will be back to "business as usual" once the games end.
Sarah Murray (C), head coach of the two Korea's unified women's ice hockey team , Pak Chol-Ho (4th R) head coach of the North Korean women's ice hockey team and South and North Korean players cheer during a welcoming ceremony after arrive at South Korea's national training center on January 25, 2018 in Jincheon, South Korea.
Song Kyung-Seok-Pool/Getty Images

North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympic Games has been lauded as a step in the right direction, with South Korea rolling out the red carpet for its estranged neighbor.

But this optimism has not extended beyond the Korean peninsula, with experts believing that it will be back to "business as usual" once the games have ended.

North Korea — or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) — is sending a delegation of around 280 people to the Winter Games in the ski resort of Pyeongyang, South Korea. The team includes athletes, cheerleaders, an arts troupe, journalists and high-profile officials.

But while the games have opened up channels of sport, culture and dialogue between the two countries, analysts told CNBC that not much will change long-term.

A brief reprieve

Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center based at Tsinghua University in Beijing, characterized the Games as a "brief reprieve."

"While the upcoming Olympics have lessened tensions on the Korean peninsula, as everyone is focused on a successful and safe Winter Games, I don't anticipate it to be enduring," he told CNBC on Thursday.

"The U.S. is committed to continuing its international maximum pressure campaign until Kim Jong Un agrees to return to the table for negotiations on denuclearization. It does not yet appear that the North is prepared to discuss its nuclear program, which means we are likely to see additional provocations by the North in the spring, particularly following the annual U.S.-Republic of Korea military exercises."

North Korea, South Korea to march together at Olympics

The DPRK's attendance at the Winter Olympics, which start Friday, is a thaw in frosty relations between North and South Korea, with the latter unfurling welcome banners for the North Korean delegation when it arrived in the South earlier this week. One message read: "We are one."

The lead-up to the games also saw a diplomatic rapprochement, with the reopening of a military hotline between the two sides — a significant step, according to University of London's Professor Hazel Smith.

"These channels (of communication) have been closed for the last two years, so the games have already had significant effects on the ability of the governments to start talking again," Smith, the author of "North Korea: Markets and Military Rule," told CNBC on Wednesday.

"Of course, the military hotline doesn't stop conflict, but if there is a conflict it opens up diplomatic channels to prevent the conflict from escalating and I think that's been welcomed in South Korea."

'Charm offensive'

North Korea has sent 22 athletes to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang; they will parade alongside South Korean athletes under a single flag during the opening ceremony Friday.

The athletes will be competing in five disciplines — mainly in the skating and skiing categories — and have formed a united women's hockey team with South Korea.

North Korea is also sending a 230-member cheering group, an orchestra and a 140-person arts troupe, the state announced ahead of the games. The DPRK team was allowed to compete after North Korean leader Jong Un gave permission in January for it to cross the border following negotiations.

North Korean cheerleaders arrive at a rest stop as their bus convoy carrying a 280-member delegation on its way to the 2018 Pyeongchang winter Olympic games, makes its way past Gapyeong on February 7, 2018.
ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images

The visit was also orchestrated and supported by the Ministry of Unification in South Korea, which was set up in 1969 and has responsibility for matters pertaining to inter-Korean relations and unification.

The ministry said that during the North Korean delegation to the Olympics, it would arrange inter-Korean dialogue between high-level delegates from the DPRK, showing that both sides want to use the Winter Olympics as a backdrop for talks.

International pressure

Despite such optimism from the Ministry of Reunification and South Korean officials over the North's presence at the games — and the hope for a rapprochement and easing of tensions between the divided nations — North Korea is still viewed as a threat.

North Korea and the U.S. traded barbs earlier this week, with a U.S. ambassador dismissing the feel-good atmosphere around North Korea's participation at the event.

"What I would call 'the charm offensive,' frankly, is fooling no-one," U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland, earlier this week.

He said that North Korea "has accelerated its provocative pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities" and represented a threat to the U.S. "North Korea has accelerated its provocative pursuit of nuclear weapons and missile capabilities, and expressed explicit threats to use nuclear weapons against the United States and its allies in the region," he said.

North Korea's delegate responded by saying that the U.S. was responsible for an escalation of tensions and that Washington was considering a pre-emptive strike against Pyongyang.

Friends and foes

While relations between North Korea and the U.S. remain frosty, at best, international pressure on Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapon ambitions will continue throughout the Games too, according to Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence.

"The region's powers are already maneuvering for the next round of brinksmanship regarding North Korea's nuclear and missile programs," Piccoli said in a research note Monday.

China, North Korea's neighbor and erstwhile ally, has been ambivalent over sanctions on North Korea, not wanting to destabilize the regime nor antagonize President Donald Trump, Haenle said. He added that Trump is likely to continue to push his counterpart Xi Jinping to more strictly enforce sanctions against Pyongyang and address DPRK efforts to circumvent those sanctions.

"China wants to appear responsive to the U.S. administration's requests. Yet, China will continue to try to prevent certain forms of U.S. and international pressure on the Pyongyang regime, which they fear would be too destabilizing," Haenle said.

As for the games, he noted that they "provided a valuable opportunity" for Vice President Pence and the U.S.' partners and allies "to coordinate on possible next steps. As regional tensions resume, it is important that leaders from the U.S., China, Republic of Korea and Japan continue to have high-level, candid dialogues and phone calls to present a united response to the North Korean threat."

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through the year 2032.