Smile Versus Glare Diplomacy at the Olympics

    Gerald F. Hyman

    Security, Asia

    U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, North Korea's nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's younger sister Kim Yo Jong attend the Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea February 9, 2018. Yonhap via REUTERS

    America and its allies should reaffirm their position very vociferously that the current regime in the North is an anathema to the values they affirm.

    Much criticism has been leveled against Vice President Mike Pence from some quarters because he remained cold-faced and motionless staring straight ahead as he sat at the opening ceremonies for the Olympic Games just a few feet away from and one row in front of Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean president Kim Jong-un. Why didn’t he at least acknowledge her presence and improve the possibility for some break-through in the stalemate with North Korea over its development and deployment of nuclear weapons and the systems to deliver them? That, after all, is the hope of South Korean president Moon Jae-in for some kind of “Olympic thaw,” the possibility of resuming talks with the north, and the reason President Moon went to such lengths to invite North Korean athletes to join South Koreans in a combined team. The effort is likely to cost South Korea some of the medals it would otherwise have won. But it did result in a letter from President Kim inviting President Moon to visit Pyongyang, conveyed by Kim Yo-jong on behalf of her brother. And President Kim has himself called for “further livening up” the “warm climate of reconciliation” created by the Olympics.

    Is the Trump administration rejecting that warm climate and instead cold-shouldering the North? Does it really prefer to break all conversation notwithstanding its regular assertions, including by Vice President Pence himself, that the United States welcomes talks with the north? “If you want to talk, we’ll talk,” Pence said as he exited the venue. But is the United States really just readying itself for a “bloody nose” preemptive strike to the north as a demonstration of U.S. commitment to blunt any North Korean plan to use its newly developed capacities in earnest?

    Perhaps Pence accurately conveyed the dark-side plans of the United States, and perhaps he should at least have acknowledged Kim Yo-jong if only as a concession to our South Korean allies. But that is not the simplest or the best reading of the Olympic stadium ballet.

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