As the Olympics get underway in Pyeongchang, the motives behind the apparent thaw in relations between North and South Korea are not entirely clear, but any turn away from belligerence should be nurtured.
In a fascinating development, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister made a show of attending the Games’ opening ceremonies this weekend in Pyeongchang, South Korea, along with her nation’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam. She twice shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
On Saturday, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, then delivered an invitation from Kim to Moon to travel to North Korea later this year. It would be the first meeting of leaders of North and South Korea since 2007.
That doesn’t mean Vice President Mike Pence, who also was attending the Games’ opening ceremonies, was about to shake hands with Kim Yo Jong. He pointedly did not, though at once point he and Kim You Jong sat just feet from each other, and maybe it’s just as well. In international diplomacy, small gestures can be misunderstood to mean big things.
But athletes from both North and South Korea marched together at Friday’s opening ceremony, sharing a “unification flag.” During the ceremony, the image of a dove lit up the sky. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said the display sent “a powerful message of peace.” In a first for the Winter Olympics, North and South Korea athletes are playing on a joint women’s hockey team.
Some people already are calling it the “Peace Olympics.” And, handshake or no handshake, it’s a welcome change from President Donald Trump and Kim exchanging barbed comments as heads of state with nuclear arsenals.
It’s important not to overestimate the significance of all this. North Korean and South Korean athletes have marched together at past Olympics, most recently in 2006. On Thursday, Kim presided over an extravagant military parade in North Korea.
A sudden diplomatic breakthrough between North Korea and the United States seems hardly more likely than when Kim started what some are derisively calling his “charm offensive,” and it’s important Kim not be allowed to weaken ties between South Korea and the United States.
Kim still wants assurances that the United States won’t attack or try to topple his government. And Pence repeated that U.S. policy remains that North Korea must give up its nuclear arsenal and stop trying to build ballistic missiles. Last week, the United States said it would ramp up sanctions.
Until now, the Trump administration has been a case study in ineptitude in diplomatic affairs, and Washington sorely needs to pursue a wiser policy in Korea. Here’s hoping, though with little confidence, that the Games signal a new start all around.
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