Political Editors / Jan. 11, 2018

North Korea's Real Olympic Goal

Kim is angling to ease economic sanctions without losing face, all while feeding national pride.

It’s tempting to believe that the only real solution to the problem that is North Korea is war. And that may be especially so lately with comments regarding fingers on nuclear buttons and the size of weapon arsenals. Which makes the latest news coming out of the Asian peninsula seem rather contradictory. North and South Korea have begun talking again, something that hasn’t happened in over two years. And it was the North that reached out to the South, relaying its desire to participate in next month’s Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.

Is this a case of sports diplomacy? Not likely. Rather, Kim Jong-un’s motives are two-fold. First, the fact of the matter is that the Olympics Games being hosted on the Korean peninsula is a big deal. For two weeks the world’s attention will be focused on South Korea, which essentially acts as a massive PR campaign. It serves Kim by allowing him to present a positive image of the rogue nation to the world via sports as well as domestically boosting nationalistic pride.

Second, sanctions are having a real impact, squeezing Kim hard enough that he is now angling for a means to ease them. By engaging in these talks and winning some compromises, like the U.S. and South Korea suspending normal joint military exercises, he hopes to lay the groundwork for further talks eventually leading to some type of economic concession. Ideally, he’d love for a deal similar to the Sunshine Policy, brokered by his father in 1998, which successfully brought in hundreds of millions to the rogue state’s coffers.

Ultimately, this is all part of Kim’s survival plan. He is no more interested in going to war than is the U.S., but he also knows any backing down to Donald Trump will be perceived as weakness — weakness that could be the death of him. He is navigating in such a manner as to continue toward the goal of developing a nuclear arsenal powerful enough to seriously threaten the U.S. By doing so, he will be in a more powerful position to demand the removal of sanctions while threatening massive consequences should his demands not be met. Kim’s is a plan not for war, but for greater power.

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