The opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea was a miraculous site. The lights. The fireworks. The dancing. The choreography. It was everything we have come to expect from a world-class Olympic Games, a coordinated and ritzy show on behalf the entire planet.
The Games in Pyeongchang, however, do stand out for one big reason: the massive sporting event is taking the form of a detente between North and South Korea, a minor easing of inter-Korean tensions that have plagued the bilateral relationship since the previous South Korean government shut down the joint industrial complex in Kaesong and Pyongyang stopped answering South Korea’s calls. South Korean President Moon Jae-in worked hard behind-the-scenes with the International Olympic Committee to convince the North Koreans to send athletes to participate in the competition. He is hoping beyond all hope that a little glad-handing and symbolic deference to Kim Jong-nam (the North’s head of state) and Kim Yo-jong (North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s sister) will edge a Korean rapprochement a little further down the field.
‘A poet once sang every snowman begins with a small lump of snow,’ Moon remarked philosophically. ‘We must roll the small lump of snow now in our hands together and carefully. Should we join our hearts, the lump of snow will get bigger and bigger and eventually become a snowman of peace.’
In case you didn’t get the hint: Seoul is eager and desperate for peace. To U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, perhaps a little too desperate.
Pence, representing the United States at the opening ceremony, was in no mood to bask in Moon’s diplomatic gobbledygook. Before he jetted to South Korea on Air Force Two, he spoke of the North Korean regime as if it were a vicious and unmerciful snake in the grass that treats its own citizens as pathetic little mice. The VP made his intentions abundantly obvious upon landing at Osan Air Force Base: ‘We’ll continue to seize every opportunity to ensure that North Korea does not use the powerful imagery and backdrop of the Olympics to paper over an appalling record of human rights and a pattern of developing weapons and conducting the kind of missile launches that are threatening our nation and threatening neighbours across the region.’
A statesman, however, can be resolute and flexible at the same time. Pence played the part of the tough-guy with an impeccable moral compass, but he failed to show the pragmatism and open-mindedness that can snowball into a diplomatic process. It is not every day when a senior U.S. and North Korean official are in the same venue – let alone sitting in the same section of the bleachers. Pence and Kim’s sister were awkwardly close, seated meters apart from each other.
Granted, it would have been a domestic political disaster for Pence to reach over and shake her hand (what good would that have done anyway?). But it is difficult not to describe Pence’s snubbing of the main reception dinner – a dinner North Korea’s head of state attended – as a missed opportunity. The VP was a non-entity, reportedly showing up late, shaking Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hand, and leaving shortly thereafter.
Would small chit chat about the weather between Pence and a Kim regime official have solved all the problems in the Washington-Pyongyang relationship? The answer is so obvious it doesn’t bare mentioning (hint: the answer is no). When the warmth and joy of the Olympics ends, North Korea will still be holding its nuclear arsenal tight and will very likely continue to manufacture and test intercontinental ballistic missiles. Notwithstanding the Trump administration’s demands and those of the U.N. Security Council, Kim Jong-U.N. is as likely to denuclearise as Donald Trump is to apologise for, well, anything. It ain’t going to happen.
But Pence had a golden chance nonetheless to establish some degree of contact with the North Korean regime to deliver a message to the fat man in Pyongyang. He had an opening to clarify to Kim what the United States wants, what it expects, and what would occur if he was stupid enough to attack the U.S. or its allies in Northeast Asia.
Unfortunately, Pence didn’t take that opportunity. President Trump may applaud him for his defiance when he lands back in Washington, but the praise will have come at the cost of bold, low-cost exploratory diplomacy.