WITH the opening of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the world has witnessed a rare show of unity between North and South Korea, as athletes compete together under one flag, high-level delegates meet for lunch at the presidential palace and President Moon is invited to meet with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang “at the earliest date possible”.
The sudden improvement in North-South relations has been influenced by various factors, including the American president, Donald Trump, and his erratic, unpredictable and precarious behaviour.
This latest thaw in relations on the Korean Peninsula came after Kim Jong Un struck an unusually conciliatory tone in his New Year address, wishing South Korea success with hosting the Winter Olympics and offering to send a North Korean delegation to the games. The speech also expressed the North Korean leader’s wish to “improve the currently frozen inter-Korean relationship” and establish a “peaceful resolution of the Southern border”.
Kim Jong Un’s amicable tone did not however extent to the United States, declaring: “the US cannot start a war against me or our country. The entire United States is within range of our nuclear weapons, and a nuclear button is always on my desk.”
Over the past year, Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump have been engaging in a public spat which has sparked global alarm, with the US President calling the Korean leader, “short and fat”, “depraved”, and a ‘Little Rocket Man’, while vowing to unleash ‘fire and fury’ and ‘totally destroy’ North Korea.
In retaliation, North Korea’s state media agency KCNA has called Trump a lunatic, warning that, “no one can predict when that lunatic old man of the White House, lost to sense, will start a nuclear war. The world is undergoing unprecedented throes because of Trump.”
The two leaders were also involved in a juvenile dispute over the size of their nuclear buttons with President Trump boasting on Twitter: ‘“I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his.” North Korean media relied by describing Trump’s insults as, “the spasm of a lunatic”, explaining, “he is making bluff only to be diagnosed as a psychopath.”
Given North Korea’s assertions about Trump’s mental instability, assertions which have also been made in the US, it’s unsurprising that Kim Jong Un has initiated dialogue with South Korea, a move which suggests the North Korean leadership are genuinely fearful of the US President’s unpredictable and erratic nature.
South Korea is also wary of President Trump, and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, who won a decisive election victory in May 2017, believes inter-Korean relations are the best way to ensure national security. Moon Jae-in has promised to promote dialogue and improve diplomatic relations with the North Korea regime. Moon Jae-in’s approach contrasts significantly with that of the current White House administration and President Trump who considers negotiations with North Korea a waste of time.
Trump’s determination to deal forcefully with Pyongyang was reaffirmed in the president’s State of the Union address which reiterated the threat North Korea posed to the US and suggested that time for dialogue had run out.
According to the New York Times, the White House has requested the Department of Defence submit detailed plans for a military attack against North Korea, with many in Washington now believing that an attack on Pyongyang is inevitable. China’s construction of refugee camps along the North Korean border also indicates that Beijing realises a US strike on North Korea could take place in the near future.
There have even been claims that Republicans were discussing how a military strike against North Korea would help Trump during midterm elections, although the White House has been quick to deny these allegations.
With an increasingly hawkish White House headed by an unpredictable president, whose approval rating is the lowest of any modern president, the threat of a US attack on North Korea is now closer than it has been at any time over the past 60 years.
Unlike the US, North and South Korea show little inclination to become entangled in an armed conflict which analysts predict could result in as many as 2.1 million fatalities and 7.7 million injuries across East Asia, and the best way to avoid conflict is for the Korean neighbours to make diplomatic progress.
Trump has raised the stakes for conflict on the Korean Peninsula, but in doing so is pushing Seoul and Pyongyang closer together. If dialogue and reconciliation between North and South Korea make progress in the weeks and months following the 2018 Winter Olympics, it would be extremely difficult for the White House to justify an attack in the region.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent