A set of important developments in the conflict on the Korean Peninsula was initiated by the DPRK’s Kim Jong-un using his New Year’s Address on January 1, 2018.
In his address, he said(1):
“This year is significant for the north and the south…in the south the Winter Olympic Games will take place. In order to not only celebrate great national events in a splendid manner but also demonstrate the dignity and spirit of the nation at home and abroad, we should improve the frozen inter-Korean relations and glorify this meaningful year as an eventful one noteworthy in the history of the nation.”
He proposed that:
“A climate favourable for national reconciliation and reunification should be established.”
To create such a climate, he urged:
“The improvement of inter-Korean relations is a pressing matter of concern not only to authorities but to all other Koreans, and it is a crucial task to be carried out through a concerted effort by the entire nation. The north and south should promote bilateral contact, travel, cooperation and exchange on a broad scale to remove mutual misunderstanding and distrust, and fulfil their responsibility and role as the motive force of national reunification.”
As a means to accomplish this, he offered:
“We will open our doors to anyone from south Korea, including the ruling party and opposition parties, organizations and individual personages of all backgrounds, for dialogue, contact, travel, if they sincerely wish national concord and unity.”
Such action however, he explained would need to be the work solely of the two Koreas:
“Inter-Korean relations are, to all intents and purposes an internal matter of our nation, which the north and the south should resolve on their own responsibility. Therefore they should acquire a steadfast stand and viewpoint that they will resolve all the issues arising in bilateral relations on the principle of By Our Nation Itself.”
Hence, he cautioned,
“(…) Now it is not time for the north and the south to turn their backs on each other and merely express their respective standpoints; it is time that they sit face to face with a view to holding sincere discussions over the issue of improving inter-Korean relations by our nation itself and seek a way out for its settlement in a bold manner.”
As a practical measure to accomplish such ends, he noted that,
“As for the Winter Olympic Games to be held soon in south Korea, it will serve as a good occasion for demonstrating our nation’s prestige and we earnestly wish the Olympic Games a success. From this point of view we are willing to dispatch our delegation and adopt other necessary measures: with regard to this matter, the authorities of the north and the south may meet together soon. Since we are compatriots of the same blood as south Koreans, it is natural for us to share their pleasure over the auspicious event and help them.”
Such actions would not be limited to this example. He explained,
“We will in the future, too, resolve all issues by the efforts of our nation itself under the unfurled banner of national independence and frustrate the schemes by anti-reunification forces within and without on the strength of national unity, thereby opening up a new history of national reunification.
ROK President Moon Jae-in greeted the possibility of the DPRK participating in the Olympics with an eager response.
Very soon after the New Year’s Speech, the two Koreas reestablished a hot line communication system to make it possible for there to be communications between them.
Similarly, Moon soon announced that he had had a phone conversation with the US President Donald Trump who agreed to postpone the military maneuver that had been planned to take place during the Olympic period, until after the Olympics.
There is a tradition to declare the period seven days before the Games start until seven days after they end as a time of an Olympic truce where hostilities between nations are temporarily stopped as a way to protect the security of both the athletes and the spectators so they can participate and or watch the games. This tradition goes back to the Greek notion of an Olympic truce (ekecheiria) which some maintain “was a legendary oracle of Delphi, to replace the cycle of conflict with a friendly athletic competition every four years.” (2)
In November, 2017 the UN General Assembly had passed a resolution, GA Res A/72/L.5 (3 November 2017), urging the member nations of the UN to honor this tradition.
Almost immediately after Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Address, the ROK welcomed the proposal and suggested Tuesday, January 9, 2018 as the first date for Inter-Korean negotiations. The DPRK accepted this date.
A momentum appeared to be building up to support negotiations between the two Koreas. Both Koreas appointed negotiating teams.
The sports representative of the DPRK flew to Lausanne, Switzerland to meet with Olympic officials who promised to do what they could to make it possible for the DPRK to participate in the Olympics.
Moon announced that he would make his New Year’s Speech on Wednesday, January 10 and then hold a press conference.
Given the concern around the world over the growing tension on the Korean Peninsula, these events have been greeted hopefully by many who expressed their support for the negotiations to continue. There is support for a breakthrough in the situation toward the development of a peaceful process to overcome the impasse that had only recently seemed insurmountable.
There were a few developments toward the end of 2017 that may have contributed to bring this situation about. One was the invitation by the DPRK to the UN to send a team to the DPRK for a visit and discussion. The acceptance of the invitation by the UN with the visit of Under Secretary General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman and his two colleagues, Sam Martell and Katrin Hett to Pyongyang from December 5 to 8, 2017, was one small sign that perhaps some change was possible to replace the tense situation previously prevailing in the region.
Around the same period, Choi Moon-soon, the governor of Gangwon, the province which includes the major site of the 2018 Winter Olympics, at Pyeongchang, where a number of Winter Olympic Games will be held, met on the sidelines of an international sports event with the DPRK Sport Club president Mun Ung and encouraged the DPRK to attend the Games.(3) An article in Hankyoreh describes such efforts:
“Choi has previously made several efforts to encourage North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics, including a meeting with North Korea’s April 25 Sports Club president Mun Ung during the Ari Sports Cup 15-and-under international youth football championship in Kunming on Dec. 19–22.”
The article also describes the efforts of representatives of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to welcome DPRK participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Then, Japan as president of the Security Council for the month of December, invited the DPRK and the ROK to attend the December 15, 2017 Security Council meeting discussing non-proliferation and the DPRK. The invitation made it possible for the DPRK Ambassador to UN to present his nation’s view of the dispute, and of the security problem facing his nation. The ROK Ambassador, as part of his presentation, urged the DPRK to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics.
These were but some of the signs that something might happen to support interaction among the various parties to the tension on the Korean Peninsula so that they would find a way to begin to interact, especially with respect to the desire of the ROK to have the DPRK participate in the upcoming Olympic events.
The UN Secretary General and the President of the General Assembly greeted these developments with welcoming messages for the inter-Korean efforts to make it possible to have a joint DPRK-ROK contribution to the upcoming Winter Olympics in February and March 2018.
The UN Secretary General’s response was to welcome the reopening of the inter-Korean communication channel. On January 3, 2018, the Deputy Spokesman for Secretary General Guterres said it was always a positive development to have dialogue between the DPRK and the Republic of Korea. The statement said it was “In that context, the Secretary-General welcomes the reopening of the inter-Korean communication channel.”
Also, on January 3, the President of the General Assembly met with the DPRK Ambassador to the UN. He issued the following statement (4):
“The President of the 72nd session of the General Assembly, H.E. Mr. Miroslav Lajčák, met today with H.E. Mr. Ja Song Nam, Permanent Representative of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to the United Nations, at the request of the Permanent Representative. The President of the General Assembly said he was pleased with the readiness of DPRK to constructively engage in a dialogue with the Republic of Korea, including a possible participation of a delegation from DPRK in the Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, Republic of Korea, as well as with the reopening of the communication channels. New York.”
Given the dangerous hostile environment that has existed regarding this dispute, these recent events appear remarkable. Whether they can be continued or whether they just end in a return to the previous more hostile environment one cannot know at this juncture. But it is important that peace loving people carefully watch what is happening on the Korean Peninsula and find a way to give whatever support they can to the forces for peace who are trying to make an impact on the current situation.
(1) From Kim Jong-un’s New Year Address, Jan. 1, 2018
(2) See General Assembly Resolution A/72/L.5 (3 November 2017),”Sport for development and peace: building a peaceful and better world through sport and the Olympic ideal”, p. 1.
(3) Kim Chang-keum, and Park Soo-hyun, “Gangwon governor raises possibility of joint South-North skating team”, January 3, 2018, Hankyoreh. http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition//e_northkorea/826186.html
See also http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_northkorea/827349.html
4) See transcript of the Press Briefing January 3 2018 by the Spokesperson for the UN Secretary General at UN Headquarters in New York
5) January 2018 – see readouts online at:http://bit.ly/2xuFz6I