SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — During the last Winter Games, North Korea was in the global spotlight in South Korea, with hundreds of athletes, cheerleaders and officials performing sought to woo their South Korean and American rivals in an attempt at diplomacy that has since stalled.
Four years later, as the 2022 Winter Olympics arrive in key ally and neighbor China, North Korea is not sending any athletes or officials, ignoring the International Olympic Committee’s suggestion that individual athletes could potentially compete despite the country’s ban. And although the country finds itself once again on the world stage, this time it is because of belligerence, not charm, in the form of a rapid series of increasingly powerful missile tests.
These tests are likely an attempt to do two things at once: perfect yet incomplete weapon systems that the North feels it needs to protect itself from its enemies, while using the concern over these improved systems to extract concessions. external relations and sanctions relief in the United States and South Korea.
Even if Pyongyang halts or halts those tests during the 17-day sports spectacle that opened on Friday — in a nod to its benefactor Beijing — experiments on bigger weapons, including ICBMs and nuclear bombs, could follow the Games, according to experts. This is especially true in the run-up to South Korean presidential elections, U.S.-South Korean military exercises, and several important North Korean anniversaries.
“For North Korea, the Beijing Olympics are always someone else’s festival, and what’s important now is to promote their own interests,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. “North Korea thinks it no longer needs to promote a peaceful image through the Olympics, because the United States will only notice them when they display a tough stance through missile launches.”
North Korea has often used the Olympics and other sporting events for political gain, perhaps most dramatically at the Pyeongchang Winter Games four years ago in the South.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent his powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, the first member of that ruling family to walk on South Korean soil since the Korean War, to the chilling opening ceremony. There, she sat in the same box as the South Korean president and the American vice-president.
None of the 22 North Korean athletes won a medal. But the country made a huge impression in the stands, where its women’s teams, dressed in matching red jumpsuits, performed meticulously choreographed routines alongside South Korean fans as they supported Korea’s first combined Olympic team in hockey women’s on ice.
There was similar cooperation during the so-called Sun Age of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when North Korea received huge aid shipments from South Korea and the Nord has frequently allowed its players to march with South Koreans at the Olympics and other sporting events.
Good feelings between the Koreas in Pyeongchang helped set the stage for leader Kim to approach then-US President Donald Trump for talks at the high-stakes nuclear summit later in 2018. Their diplomacy, however, fell apart the following year after Trump rebuffed Kim’s pleas. for necessary sanctions relief in exchange for limited denuclearization.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a key player in the 2018 Olympics diplomacy, has pushed hard to use the Beijing Games as another venue for peace in Korea. He sought to have the leaders of the Koreas, the United States and China meet in Beijing and symbolically declare an end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which technically is still going on.
The North, however, announced it was skipping the Games due to the coronavirus pandemic and moves by ‘hostile forces’, and ignored repeated offers from Seoul and Washington for talks as it resumed testing. of missiles.
Last September, the International Olympic Committee suspended North Korea until the end of 2022 for refusing to send a team to the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which Pyongyang also skipped due to the virus. Still, Seoul hoped the Beijing Olympics could help ease Korean animosities – and the IOC has left the door open for athletes to compete, if not represent their country. But the North did not cross it.
North Korea’s decision to avoid the Olympics, even as it attempts to reopen land trade with China after two years of pandemic border closures and economic decline, may reflect Pyongyang’s frustration towards Seoul and its inability to get concessions from Washington on its name, said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst at the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
Even with the IOC ban, Moon, the analyst, said the North “could still have pursued diplomatic opportunities on the sidelines with the Games being hosted by the Chinese ally.” Instead, the North Koreans “say they don’t want to get involved at all.”
More than that, the North has followed a course that the West considers provocative.
In January alone, North Korea conducted seven rounds of missile tests, including a medium-range weapon capable of striking the US territory of Guam in the Pacific. This is a record monthly number of weapons tests since Kim took power in December 2011. North Korea also recently threatened to lift a four-year moratorium on long-range missiles and nuclear tests.
While Chinese officials may have been unhappy with North Korea’s round of testing just before the Games began, China appears publicly willing to condone the tests amid growing confrontation with Washington.
The North certainly needs China. Beijing is North Korea’s economic pipeline, and its support is crucial if the North is to revive its pandemic-stricken economy. On Friday, Kim sent a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping saying the Beijing Olympics “sharply demonstrate China’s dynamic spirit” and that he would strengthen bilateral relations with Xi.
Many observers predict a slew of post-Games weapons tests intended to increase pressure on Washington.
These could include a submarine-launched missile, a longer-range missile capable of reaching the American homeland, or a nuclear device. Other options are a forbidden rocket launch to place a spy satellite in orbit or unveil an advanced submarine.
The North may want these tests to be a means of influencing or drawing attention to South Korea’s March 9 presidential election, the annual US-South Korea joint military exercises in March, or the 110th birthday of state founder Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, on April 15.
It is unclear whether high-profile launches will lead the United States to grant North Korea sanctions relief, international recognition as a legitimate nuclear state or security guarantees.
The Biden administration has offered open talks but shown no willingness to ease sanctions unless North Korea takes real steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program. North Korea, for its part, has said it will not resume talks unless the United States first abandons its hostile policies, which could be a reference to American troops stationed in the South and international sanctions against its illicit weapons programme.
If past events are any indication, Pyongyang and Washington could possibly meet again after a period of intense confrontation, something the nations have done repeatedly since North Korea’s first nuclear crisis in the early 1990s.
But Nam, the professor, said U.S.-North Korea relations were unlikely to see a major breakthrough under the Biden administration.
“For the past 30 years, they clashed to an extreme degree before meeting again and making deals,” said Kim Yeol Soo, an expert at South Korea’s Korea Institute of Military Affairs. “What’s frightening about this repeated process is the fact that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have been steadily advancing in the meantime.”
More AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports