It was not George Osborne’s finest moment as editor of the Evening Standard when a headline of ‘Handshake of History’ was captioned under the photograph of Moon Jae-in shaking hands with Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un at the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Temperatures may have been close to -20 Celsius, yet global media reports seemed to imply that such cold conditions were offset by the warming of relations between the two countries, still technically at war. Before we all get carried away with the potential ‘Moonshine’ policy, which has accompanied President Moon since his re-election campaign, we must consider two things: firstly, the foundations under which any North-South dialogue must occur, and secondly, the very important word that is ‘emotions’.
Let’s ask an important question that no diplomat wishes to be asked in present times. If you were Moon Jae-in, what would you do having been offered a trip to Pyongyang? A lifeline to commence what many others have tried and failed, to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. Perhaps simultaneously a way of filling a personal and emotional obligation: the President’s parents were war refugees from South Hamgyeong Province, in the east of North Korea, an area from where a large number of North Korean defectors originate.
Yet it is important that we are not naïve. One trip to Pyongyang – if it does go ahead – does not solve all. We only have to look back at U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit in 2000 – all the right intentions, but no real outcomes. Moreover, we need to be realistic. Trump’s Korea policy may be inchoate, but his emphasis on pressure on the North is a positive step. Sanctions, for all their flaws and crippling effects on the most vulnerable in North Korean society, do have an effect on the North Korea, particularly its economic reliance on its ‘bigger brother’ of China. Yet Mr Trump’s obsession with ‘complete, verifiable, irreversible, dismantlement’ (acronym: CVID) is anything but realistic. And to go into any form of talks with North Korea with that as the first bullet point on the agenda before any further talks can take place is a faux pas.
For a state that has done so much to develop its nuclear capacity, and for whom the prestige of being seen as a nuclear state is increasingly central to its domestic and foreign policy, it seems completely rational for Kim Jong-un to plough ahead with his nuclear development – aim higher and further, figuratively, and literally. It is only rational for North Korea to refuse any further dialogue if denuclearization were the starting conditions – and not the outcome – of any talks. President Moon must bear this in mind.
We must also pay attention to what has been termed as ‘gesture diplomacy’ – just as Olympics venues become emotional venues for sportspeople, the international political arena is an ideal stage for the drama of emotional diplomacy. Mike Pence’s refusal to shake the hands of the North Korean delegation was a faux pas in the performance of diplomacy, North Korea wants to be seen not only as a nuclear power, but an ‘equal’ power on the world stage: prestige and status matter, and where better to reflect this than a gathering of diplomats at a global sporting event.
The opening ceremony showcased the artistic and performative talents of the Republic of Korea, and the diplomatic stage showcased the “openness” of Moon to Kim Yo Jong’s suggestion and the “openness” of the DPRK to its southern adversary. Great photographs, great global news headlines, but an historic moment? Not quite.
Pyeongchang will soon return to its ‘normal’ role as a provincial county rich in Korean culture. With Foal Eagle (the annual US-ROK joint military exercises) likely to take place post-Olympics, this will undoubtedly lead to some response to the North, which, in turn, is likely to lead to some more emotional, ‘Twitter diplomacy’, by Mr. Trump.
Not to say that ‘history repeats itself’, but this time last year saw the launch of the Pukguksong-2 intermediate range ballistic missile. The missile only managed 500 of its 2000 kilometres range, prior to collapsing into the East Sea. Widely seen as a test for the new Trump administration, this was also a test for the wider international community: North Korea shows few signs of abandoning its nuclear capabilities anytime soon. It is saying a firm refusal to CVID.
A year has passed. Tensions have escalated, particularly the Trump-Kim war of words, and the ever voluminous nuclear and missile testing remains ongoing. Sanctions have continued, and so they should – the more sanctions, the less oblivious the North can be on the increasingly visible impact on their economy.
The ‘handshake of history’ is anything but. It is an act of emotional diplomacy. For progress to take place, words and gesture must become actions, and Moon must think carefully about the words he uses when the flight to Sunan International Airport is booked. The day of denuclearization may seem like Godot: one waits for it, but it never arrives. There is work to do: but how much, and for how long, remains, just like the missiles, ‘up in the air.’