Two Koreas walk into a bar...

Yesterday I looked at the rather surprising moved toward what might be considered “normal” diplomacy by North Korea. It was part of Kim Jong-un’s annual address to his nation and he suggested that it might be time to sit down with his counterpart in South Korea and talk about easing tensions and finding areas where they might cooperate, including participation in the upcoming Olympic Games. This immediately sends up some red flags for me because Kim is clearly trying to establish North Korea as an accepted nuclear power and begin normalizing that condition as the new reality in Asia.

I obviously wasn’t the only one who saw this as a warning of bad things to come. Senator Lindsey Graham took to Twitter and urged South Korean President Moon Jae-in to think twice before accepting an apple from a witch.

Allowing Kim Jong Un’s North Korea to participate in #WinterOlympics would give legitimacy to the most illegitimate regime on the planet.

I’m confident South Korea will reject this absurd overture and fully believe that if North Korea goes to the Winter Olympics, we do not.

Lindsey Graham, January 1, 2018

It appears that Moon Jae-in is no more likely to listen to Lindsey Graham than to me. This morning, less than 24 hours later, he was out with an official statement suggesting that representatives of the two nations get together in a neutral location as soon as next week to begin hammering out the details. (Reuters)

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Tuesday the improvement of inter-Korean relations was linked to resolving North Korea’s nuclear program, a day after the North offered talks with Seoul but was steadfast on its nuclear ambitions.

“The improvement of relations between North and South Korea cannot go separately with resolving North Korea’s nuclear program, so the foreign ministry should coordinate closely with allies and the international community regarding this,” Moon said in opening remarks at a cabinet meeting…

The South Korean president requested the ministries of unification and sports to swiftly create measures to help North Korea participate in the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

They’re already talking about sending cruise ships up to North Korea’s Wonsan port to ferry athletes and officials down to Pyeongchang for the games. This would “minimize costs” for the North as well as avoiding the inconvenient issues of the millions of landmines buried under the DMZ. It may not be a done deal yet, but it certainly looks as if Moon Jae-in is ready to jump at the chance to minimize the risk of an international incident (if not a direct attack) during the games.

Choe Sang-hun, covering Korean affairs for the New York Times, has another deep dive on this story today which is worth a look. This would be the first time in two years that the two nations have engaged in formal talks and it’s something that the relatively liberal South Korean president has been pushing for ever since wresting control of the government from his more conservative opponents.

There are a couple of disturbing things about the Sout Korean response which are worth noting. The first is the language that South Korea is now using. While not ignoring the North’s nuclear weapons provocations entirely, Moon Jae-in is now talking about “resolving” North Korea’s nuclear program. He’s not saying eliminating, dismantling or even scaling back the program. What this could amount to is little more than a freeze in significant growth. In other words, he’s very likely signaling an acceptance of the North as a nuclear power providing they don’t get too carried away. And that’s the first building block that Kim Jong-un needs if his goal is, as I mentioned above, to get the rest of the world to accept a nuclear North Korea as the new normal.

What are the odds of Kim keeping his word even if he agreed to such limitations? If history is any guide, not very good. Part of the same speech where he proposed some form of reconciliation with the South included statements that he was already working on building up his stockpile of both ICBMs and warheads so he can be ready to go at any moment if he’s attacked. But if he can sell this plan to South Korea, China and Russia (which wouldn’t be any great feat if they can claim that they’ve capped the problem), he can probably get at least some of the major sanctions on his country lifted. Once the oil and food assistance are flowing back in, Kim has essentially won the chess match and the United States is left out in the cold.

Yet again, I have to grudgingly offer a tip of my hat to Kim Jong-un. The guy may be a completely insane maniac, but he’s figured out the game of international politics and diplomacy. And at least for the moment, he looks like he’s winning. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that we’re going to deeply regret not nipping this problem in the bud when we had the chance back in the 90s. And that day may come sooner rather than later.