While the two Koreas took the first halting steps toward becoming one, Mike Pence sat boorish and stone-faced, like an emperor giving the thumbs-down to both gladiators. The U.S. and Trump’s vested interest in perpetual conflict was on display for the whole world to see.
PYEONGCHANG, KOREA — North Korea’s participation in the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics drew thunderous applause from crowds at the games and a flurry of press coverage hailing the unfolding diplomatic process between Seoul and Pyongyang.
While talks between the delegation from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) — headed by Kim Yo-jong, the sister and special envoy of Marshal Kim Jong-un — and South Korean President Moon Jae-in proceeded without any noticeable issues, it remains too early to assess the overall impact of the visit. However, events and coverage surrounding Pyongyang’s participation in the Games reveal the tip of a diplomatic iceberg that could shake up regional geopolitics in the year ahead.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence earned widespread mockery and derision after he conspicuously snubbed his South Korean hosts’ invitation to a pre-opening ceremony dinner and infamously remained seated, stone-faced, alongside Japanese Prime-Minister Shinzo Abe while other state delegations rose and gave standing ovations to the united Korean delegation that marched under the Korea Unification Flag.
Pence’s attention-grabbing gesture of protest was universally blasted as poor diplomacy. A commentary by Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the DPRK’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee, noted:
Pence … is rebuffed and blasted at home and abroad for his anti-DPRK confrontation hysteria unfit for the atmosphere of the Olympics. Pence let out a torrent of abuse pointing an accusing finger at the others’ event, instead of just sitting to watch it as a guest. His behavior is nothing but an ugly sight [reminding one] of crazy Trump. We never sent the high-level delegation to south Korea in order to create the possibility of a dialogue with Americans …”
While a potential encounter between the DPRK delegation and the U.S. team was widely rumored, the North’s overtures to the South have certainly not extended to President Trump, whom DPRK leader Kim Jong-un memorably called “the dotard who, hard of hearing, is uttering only what he wants to say.”
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Prior to the games, South Korean daily newspaper Hankyoreh – a highly-trusted, left-of-center outlet of which President Moon was a founding member – issued a warning to Washington specifically criticizing Pence’s stated goal of using his visit to place additional pressure on Pyongyang and prevent it from turning the Olympics into a stage for its “propaganda:”
Such an attitude not only goes against the spirit of the Olympics but is also very disrespectful to South Korea, the host of the Olympics … It makes you wonder how poorly they must think of the South Koreans who are hosting the Olympics.
… Showing up at someone else’s party and picking a fight with one of their guests betrays a complete lack of respect for the host. We hope that the U.S. government will exhibit the magnanimity befitting a superpower by making a diplomatic effort to bring North Korea to the table for talks through the Pyeongchang Olympics.”
The U.S. Crisis of credibility
Pence’s ill-considered and decidedly non-diplomatic approach found an echo not only in conservative outlets like Fox News and Breitbart, but also in surprising media sources like the ostensibly “woke” feminist website Jezebel, a Disney-Univision subsidiary of Fusion Media Group.
With blog-like snark, the article deployed every stereotype short of the oriental “dragon lady” trope to sarcastically detail the alleged “rehabilitation” of the DPRK leader’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, who has been reimagined by the U.S. mainstream media as the “Ivanka Trump of North Korea:”
[W]ith her silent, spartan presence … she’s putting a soft public face on a regime [with] death camps which one Holocaust survivor has called ‘worse than Auschwitz’ … We know basically nothing about her aside from that she smiles … [Like Ivanka she’s] in a category of well-behaved politically unopinionated women related to a homicidal maniac … North Korea’s feminine look is playing on TV.”
While one could argue, as an opinion columnist for The Washington Post did, that Pence’s poor performance in comparison to Kim came down to “a mistake in the game of gender politics,” his off-putting style was consistent with the manner in which the Trump White House has consistently burned itself “with fire and fury” on the DPRK question, scoring few points in the world press versus a once-easy-to-pick-on “rogue state.” Note the negative coverage of Trump’s “bigger button” tweets or the uproarious, slap-knee reaction to the former reality star being characterized by “rocket man” Kim Jong-un as a “dotard.”
Trump’s “dotard” status is a matter of near-unanimous international consensus, especially in regard to his handling of what could become the most dangerous crisis in East Asia since the Korean War. Pyongyang hardly seems anxious about extending an invitation to Trump’s ill-mannered officials, especially if they come to the table only to project the same insulting attitude as their commander-in-chief has via Twitter.
Korean unity and a divided constituency
The key moment in the meetings came when Ms. Kim — the first member of a top DPRK leader’s family to cross the 38th Parallel since the armistice that ended the fighting in Korean War – extended a hand-written invitation from Kim Jong-un to President Moon, marking the first personal correspondence between leaders since the division of the country.
“We hope to see you in Pyongyang at an early date,” she told Moon, according to reports from the presidential Blue House. “We want to see President Moon become a protagonist in opening a new chapter for reunification and leave great footprints in history.”
Aware of the delicate issues surrounding a potential new inter-Korean summit, which would be the third in history, President Moon was circumspect in his immediate response, expressing hopes a conducive environment can be created prior to such a move.
Following the visit, the Rodong Sinmun characterized the talks that followed the invitation as both “frank and candid” – which can often be interpreted as diplomatic-speak for frigid and awkward – before subsequently calling them “sincere and cordial.” Coming from Pyongyang, which often refers to Seoul as a “puppet government” beholden to the U.S., one can safely assume that the talks were viewed positively by the DPRK’s leadership.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un poses for a commemorative photo with members of the high-ranking delegation to South Korea upon their return to Pyongyang on Feb. 11. The photo appeared on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun on Feb. 13.
On February 13, the Rodong Sinmun reported that Kim Jong-un met with his sister and the high-ranking delegation to Pyeongchang to discuss “South Korean intentions and American movements ascertained during the period of activity,” as well as the overall results of the talks.
Recommending practical follow-up measures – which could include Red Cross talks to hold reunion meetings between families divided by the Korean War, which include President Moon’s own parents – Kim was quoted as saying:
It’s important to further elevate this positive atmosphere for reconciliation and dialogue and to continue to build upon excellent results.”
While interpreted by some as a concession to U.S. demands that denuclearization be the starting-point for talks leading up to a third inter-Korean summit, none of the Blue House press briefings have included the so-called “d-word,” which would have likely soured talks between the Pyongyang and Seoul. This didn’t stop the right-wing opposition Liberty Korea Party from issuing an official statement declaring that “a presidential visit to North Korea that does not assume the abolition of North Korea’s nuclear program is an act that aids the enemy.”
President Moon’s own position on the inter-Korean relationship has unabashedly favored advancing diplomacy between North and South until reunification is achieved. In an address to the National Assembly last November, Moon said:
The destiny of the Korean nation must be determined by Koreans. The unfortunate past in which our destiny was determined against our will must never be allowed to recur.”
In truth, however, the president is faced with a delicate balancing act and is by no means backed by the Korean nation as a whole.
As U.S. publications took great pains to point out, younger South Koreans – 72 percent of those in their 20s – increasingly react either coldly or with an apathetic shrug when asked about the goal of reunifying North and South, according to polls by the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government think-tank. A steady flow of U.S. reports drove the point home: overworked millennials in the “cosmopolitan” South can’t be bothered with footing a bill to help develop the North or integrate its “country bumpkins” (chon nom) into a reunified Korea.
Likewise, negative press coverage from the right-wing, pro-Washington press in South Korea has stubbornly dogged Moon in a manner that recalls the slanderous coverage to which his predecessor Roh Moo-hyun, whom Moon served as chief of staff, was exposed.
When Moon is not being accused of being a “commie” for his commonsensical approach to the North, or facing charges that he transformed the Pyeongchang games into the “Pyongyang Olympics” out of naivete, frequent appeals are published demanding that the government continue its war games with the U.S. and Japan in line with the policy of subjecting the DPRK to “maximum pressure.”
However, national backing for unification remains at 57.8 percent — a decline from previous years, to be sure, yet still a number representing a majority of the Korean voting public.
Yet Moon has not only his voters to answer to, but also his allies and regional neighbors.
Japan’s “improper” interference
As was the case with the U.S., Japan’s diplomatic performance at the Games – led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – failed to come close to winning even the Bronze.
As detailed in a previous article published by MintPress News, Japan’s right-wing government headed by Abe has no shortage of differences with the left-leaning nationalist trend represented by President Moon.
It would be difficult to think of a worse pairing than Abe – an adherent of the belligerently nationalist Nippon Kaigi, which extols the Imperial Japanese era and detests “apology diplomacy” toward its war-wounded neighbors – and Moon, who has demanded redress and justice from Korea’s former colonial tormenter to such an extent that the Japanese press has labeled him “anti-Japanese.”
While Pence departed the games stressing how “no daylight” exists between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, the jarring difference in coverage of Abe’s talks with Moon by their respective national press corps painted the opposite picture.
Leading Japanese daily The Asahi Shimbun noted that Abe’s first visit to South Korea since Moon took office was a chance to not only address disagreements but make “steady progress” toward building around “common interests” in spite of the North’s “smile diplomacy.” The Japan Times, quoting Abe, also stressed that he and Moon affirmed their commitment to “raise pressure to the maximum degree” on the North while pushing for the denuclearization of the DPRK.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency, however, quickly put a damper on the Japanese press corps’ enthusiasm over the tense talks held between Tokyo and Seoul, which included a discussion of the sexual enslavement of Korean women by Japan during World War II. Responding to Abe’s demands to extract denuclearization pledges from Pyongyang and his remark that “It is not the time to delay the Seoul-Washington joint drills … [you must] implement the drills as scheduled,” Moon reportedly spared few words rebuffing his bellicose “ally:”
I understand you are saying the joint drills should not be delayed as long as the North continues its nuclear programs. But this is a matter of South Korea’s sovereignty and domestic affairs. It is improper for you to mention it.”
China and Russia hail the “Dual Freeze”
While Han Zheng, a high-ranking Communist Party of China official and special envoy for President Xi Jinping, met with the DPRK’s delegation at Pyeongchang, few details have been revealed about the meeting. The increasingly frosty relations between Beijing and Pyongyang were laid explicitly bare in an article released by Rodong Sinmun during the visit titled “For What Do Chinese Media Despicably Intrude in Event of Korean Nation,” where the author called Chinese media personalities and experts “screwballs” keen on derailing “north-south reconciliation:”
It reminds one of a mean fellow looking over the fence of a feast host.
… Some experts and media of China engrossed in admonishing others are now showing the same proclivity as the Trump and Abe groups and the conservative riff-raffs of south Korea, marginalized after being isolated and rejected in the world.
Going blind in judging the trend of the times would make one face great disappointment. Such senseless meddling doesn’t fit the appearance of a [super] ‘power’ – the Winter Olympics has nothing to do with ‘denuclearization.’”
Despite the angry words that lay bare a broader worsening of ties between the once-close allies, China’s Foreign Ministry has warmly greeted the unfolding inter-Korean talk, while stressing the need to extend the dialogue to “all the relevant parties,” including the U.S., and work “together” for a denuclearized peninsula.
Both China and Russia have proposed the so-called “dual freeze” plan that would entail the U.S. and South Korea halting their war games in exchange for a suspension of missile and nuclear weapons tests by the DPRK – a plan roundly rejected by the Trump administration. However, in an interview with Rossiya 24 television, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. Vasily Nebenzya noted that, in effect, the plan is already being implemented:
There are no tests now, and joint U.S.-South Korean exercises are not conducted either. We call on all parties to use the window of opportunity that appeared, at least until April, when the Americans threaten to resume the exercises, which can lead to another round of exacerbations, and enter into a real dialogue on the issue. We urge both the Americans and North Koreans [to do so] …The sooner it starts the better.”
U.S. imperialism on ‘autopilot’
The Trump administration still lacks an ambassador to South Korea. While Trump has spared no effort tweeting insults toward the DPRK, he still lacks a dedicated professional who can manage ties with Seoul – instead, the Korea question has been a “hot potato” held by Tillerson one day before it’s passed on to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Pence, or some other officials, the next.
Washington appears to have little interest in the diplomatic finesse the current crisis requires.
The White House thought it had found the right person for the job of ambassador in Victor Cha, a conservative with significant experience in North Korea diplomacy under the Bush administration. Alas, even Cha was found ill-suited for the position after his objections to Trump’s preemptive strike plan – the so-called “bloody nose” assault – became known. A senior foreign policy fellow at the liberal interventionist Brookings Institution saw the move to ditch Cha as a troubling sign of things to come:
I thought the Trump administration was bluffing on a preventive strike… but the news about Cha no longer being nominated is the type of costly signalling that convinces me I may have been wrong. They are seriously considering it.”
Considering that President Moon has written that South Koreans need to learn to “say no to the Americans” in defense of their interests, the Trump administration appears remarkably careless in its approach to managing the U.S.-led Asia-Pacific security architecture. Come April, we’ll see whether the South Korea-U.S. war games kick off again at the risk of derailing the fledgling inter-Korean reconciliation process.
For now, one can only conclude that the Olympics were a major victory for the Korean nation and an abject failure for Donald Trump.
Top Photo | North Korea supporters wave the Korean unification flag ahead of the pairs free skate figure skating final in the Gangneung Ice Arena at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Feb. 15, 2018. (AP/Bernat Armangue)
Elliott Gabriel is a former staff writer for teleSUR English and a MintPress News contributor based in Quito, Ecuador. He has taken extensive part in advocacy and organizing in the pro-labor, migrant justice and police accountability movements of Southern California and the state’s Central Coast.