x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 February 2018

Olympic unity on the divided Korean peninsula might give way to nuclear point-scoring afterwards – but it has made for an unmissable spectacle

Behind the shmaltz and shameless posturing, North Korea’s initiatives should at least be taken as they are meant – a tactical move to ensure survival for Kim Jong-un’s regime and his country

North Korean short track speed skater Choe Un Song was cheered on by both North and South Koreans / Reuters
North Korean short track speed skater Choe Un Song was cheered on by both North and South Koreans / Reuters

That the Winter Olympics are showcasing hopes for peace and amity in the world is exactly as it should be. The two Koreas’ rapprochement – limited though it may prove to be – has turned Pyeongchang into the unity games, with even the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un describing it as "a warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue". That is no easy feat, considering toe-curling displays of American displeasure at the two Koreas’ attempt to bridge a 70-year divide. US vice president Mike Pence reportedly said the Trump administration wants the warming of relations with North Korea to end when the Olympic flame is extinguished. After he left Pyeongchang though, Mr Pence indicated the US could be open to a twin-track approach towards North Korea of “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time”.

American curmudgeonly attitudes aside, the state of blissful serenity is likely to continue at least until the third week of March, when the Paralympics conclude and the North Korean athletes leave the snowy climes of Pyeongchang to go home. Then the postponed US-South Korea joint military exercises may resume; Pyongyang, in a fit of pique, might lapse back into muttered imprecations and bouts of nuclear missile testing and US president Donald Trump will have much to fulminate about on Twitter.

But any return to scary business as usual will not entirely cancel out the fleeting warmth of the interactions in wintry Pyeongchang. There is a basic logic in reaching out to communicate with each other across geopolitical chasms. The effort affirms the basic human need to connect, which can prevent war, bloodshed and much suffering. There is a magic in public comity, however cynical its intent and however brief the spell it casts. It is a reminder of the wonders of our shared humanity. For six weeks, we are allowed to take the role of the little boy in the children’s film The Snowman. During the Pyeongchang games, in the words of The Snowman’s theme song, we will be metaphorically “walking in the air, dancing in the midnight sky and everyone who sees us greets us as we fly”.

For the spectacle of Olympic unity on the divided Korean peninsula is intermittent but intense. During the 1,500-metre short track speed skating elimination heats, for example, South and North Koreans alike lustily cheered on the only North Korean in the race, 25-year-old Choe Un Song. He eventually failed to qualify but it was a reminder that in sport at least, Korean is Korean, whether it is the North or South.

There was the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team, which lost to Switzerland but overwhelmingly won gold as a symbol of hope-in-harmony. There was the blue-on-white flag carried at the opening ceremony by the temporarily united delegations from both Koreas. Arirang, a much-loved folk song known to all Koreans, is serving as a national anthem at Pyeongchang. As a song that expresses a shared identity, it is the classic anthem, an organic patriotic hymn for a riven people. And finally, there was the much-hyped visit to Pyeongchang’s opening ceremony by North Korea’s very own political princess, Kim Yo-jong. The millennial sister of the North Korean leader, Ms Kim was the first immediate member of her country’s ruling family to set foot in South Korea since the 1950-3 Korean war.

Realists and international relations pundits and players have been quick to pick on the obvious schmaltz and shameless posturing of North Korea’s overtures. Before the Games, the Trump White House slammed the attempt to “hijack” them with a propaganda campaign. Mr Pence glowered in Pyeongchang and pointedly failed to cheer the unified Korean Olympic team.

But if symbolism can be said to stand for something, North Korea’s initiatives should at least be taken as they are meant – a tactical move to ensure survival for Mr Kim’s regime and for the country. Perhaps Mr Trump was not particularly discerning when he tweeted in September that “rocket man”, aka Mr Kim, “is on a suicide mission”. The Pyeongchang Games and Mr Kim’s transparent pursuit of engagement suggest quite the reverse. Perhaps it might be still possible to sprinkle around some “diplomatic fairy dust”, as one American newspaper put it.

Of course, there are larger issues at stake, not least nuclear non-proliferation. Until Mr Pence’s concession as he left Pyeongchang of possible direct talks without preconditions, the US insisted that Olympic love-fests or not, there could no real thaw and certainly no negotiation unless North Korea abandons its missile programme.

It is a fine aspiration and would be so much stronger if the US was setting an example and assiduously working towards a nuclear-free world. Former president Barack Obama declared this as a goal in 2009 but the Trump administration recently revealed plans to develop smaller, more “usable” nuclear weapons and to loosen constraints on their use.

The game of nuclear point-scoring will continue long after the alpine skiing, men’s singles luge and curling mixed doubles (a first for the Winter Olympics) are over at Pyeongchang.