The Korean peninsula is witnessing something that would have been unthinkable a few months ago.
Last year, the world had seen a belligerent North Korea conduct a rash of ballistic missile launches, nuclear detonations, and engage in a fierce rhetorical war with US President Donald Trump — with the latter mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “rocket man” and the young dictator threatening to rain nuclear destruction on the United States.
But in 2018 Kim has adopted a more conciliatory tone, calling for detente with the South Koreans.
The two Koreas even held a rare high-level meeting last month. And more recently, Pyongyang accepted an invitation to participate in what is being billed as the “peace Olympics”.
Call it what you like – Pyongyang’s “Smile Diplomacy”, “Soft Power”, “Charm Offensive”, “Political Posturing” or plain propaganda, the uplifting news that delegations from North Korea and South Korea will parade together wearing the same costumes and under one flag at today’s ceremony to open the Winter Olympics Games in the southern city of Pyeongchang, is being greeted like a much needed breath of fresh air in a region that has remained stifled by fears of war and political tensions for decades.
Remember, both Koreas are technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice with neither side victorious.
In 1986, North Korea boycotted the Asian Games staged in Seoul and the 1988 Summer Olympics in the South Korean capital.
Coming as it did against this scenario, North Korea’s landmark agreement to send a team to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, rising above more than six decades of political tensions with its southern neighbour, was a watershed moment in the history of both the nations.
North Korea has sent 22 athletes in all, including 12 on a united women’s ice hockey team, to Pyeongchang, which lies just 80km south of the border.
What is perhaps more significant is the announcement by Seoul’s Unification Ministry that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s 28-year-old sister, Kim Yo-jong, will visit South Korea to attend the opening ceremony.
If true, this would be her debut on the world stage.
The ministry quoted Pyongyang as telling Seoul that Kim Yo-jong would accompany Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s nominal head of state, along with Choe Hwi, chairman of the National Sports Guidance Committee, and Ri Son Gwon, who led inter-Korean talks last month. Kim Yo-jong would be the first member of the Kim family to cross the border to the South.
SouthKorea’s presidential Blue House said that Kim Yo-jong’s inclusion in the delegation is “meaningful” as she is not only the sister of the country’s leader but has a significant position as a senior official of the ruling Workers’ Party.
“It shows the North’s resolve to defuse tension on the Korean peninsula,” Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom said.
The opening ceremony will also be attended by US Vice-President Pence — who has declined to rule out a meeting with the North Korean delegation — Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other world leaders.
Pence said after talks with Abe in Tokyo on Wednesday that Washington would soon unveil its toughest ever economic sanctions on North Korea, calling the country the “most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet”. And in what is seen as another defiant gesture, North Korea staged a mammoth military parade, albeit a low-key one, on the eve of the games.
Only time will tell whether the current feel-good gestures will bear fruit in the long run. However, given the past acrimony — and especially since the Korean peninsula still remains tense — all sides will do well to tone down rhetoric and give peace a chance.
Last updated: February 08 2018 11:29 PM