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Friday, July 22, 2011     GET REAL

Pro-North Korea politics intrude on Seoul’s Winter Olympics celebration

By Donald Kirk,

WASHINGTON — South Korea’s conservative leaders may not like it, but the race to the 2018 Winter Olympics has entered a new and unpredictably political phase now that the International Olympics Committee (IOC) has awarded the 2018 Games to obscure Pyeongchang district in a region of low-lying mountains near the Korean east coast.


South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak reacts as the International Olympic Committee, IOC, announces in Durban, South Africa on July 6 that Pyeongchang was awarded the 2018 Winter Olympics.     AP/Kim Ludbrook
As 2018 approaches, we’re in for non-stop campaigning to bring North Korea into the fray — if not co-hosting the games, then forming joint teams with South Koreans. That’s going to be a campaign issue during the next election for president of South Korea at the end of 2012, and it will be an even bigger issue during the campaigning for president in 2017.

That’s not just because the leader of the opposition Democratic Party, Sohn Hak-kyu, came up with the idea of a joint North-South team hours after the IOC, meeting in Durban, South Africa, voted overwhelmingly for Pyeongchang.

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The likely candidate of the ruling Grand National Party, Park Geun-hye, daughter of the long-ruling Park Chung-hee, assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979, may also want some accommodation with North Korea.

She has the distinction of having called on North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang a few years ago and undoubtedly will try to pursue some level of reconciliation with North Korea after the rising confrontation during President Lee Myung-Bak’s term.

Lee, under South Korea’s constitution, promulgated after rioting against then-president Chun Doo-Hwan shook the country in June 1987, cannot run for a second term. Although he ordered and led the winning campaign for the bid, he’ll be in the role of an historical figure, not forgotten but not sharing in the glory, when the Games in Pyeongchang finally begin.

Lee’s lieutenants, the bureaucrats who fought to bring the Games to Pyeongchang, view the prospect of sharing the fun with the North Koreans with the deepest repugnance. As far as they’re concerned, North Korea wants to crash the party after the South did all the work to make it happen, losing in two previous campaigns for the Winter Olympics.

That attitude, however, makes it all the easier for Sohn Hak-kyu and a wide range of opposition politicos to hold the government partly responsible for the rapid deterioration of relations under Lee. The opposition no longer tries to claim that the sinking of the South Korean navy corvette the Cheonan in the Yellow Sea in March of last year was all an accident, maybe caused by an unexploded mine. They say, however, that the South provoked North Korea into such behavior by passing up opportunities to negotiate while pursuing a “hardline”, no compromise policy.

As for the other incident last year that shook up inter-Korean relations, namely the shelling in November of Yeonpyeong Island, also in the Yellow Sea, opposition figures like to say North Korea would not have felt compelled to fire shells if the South had shown a little more flexibility about fishing rights for North Koreans.

As the 2012 election year approaches, the Grand National Party is under mounting pressure to pull back from the hostile position that Lee publicly espoused. The party faces the risk of losing seats in the National Assembly and then losing the presidential election if the government fails to soften its stance during the campaign.

How soft, however, can South Korea go? One thing is sure: South Korea is not going to relent the seemingly tough policy of the Lee government if North Korea stages another “incident”, tests a lot of missiles or conducts a third underground nuclear test.

North Korean rhetoric goes on unabated, but the North gives the impression of wanting to ease tensions while getting ready for the big bash marking the 100th anniversary next April of the birth of Kim Jong-Il’s long-ruling father, Kim Il-Sung. North Korea has its hand out for donations of food and medicine from anyone and everyone, and has already been promised food aid by the European Union and individual European countries.

The ultimate hope is the U.S. and South Korea will resume sending several hundred thousand tons a year — a regular contribution that Lee cut off shortly after his inauguration in February 2008.

The U.S. envoy on North Korean human rights, Robert King, has apparently decided, after leading a team to North Korea to look into its needs, that North Korea really has enough food. US officials say North Korea could get the food to many more of those who needed it if the leaders would stop spreading most of it around the armed forces, the Workers’ Party and the government, the trinity that forms the North Korean elite.

King, however, was influenced in part by South Korean objections to sending food to North Korea. A number of South Koreans believe the South should resume aid in limited quantities to the North if that’s what it takes to begin to form decent relations.

South Korean senior officials have made clear they no longer are sticking by demands for an advance “apology” from the North for the sinking of the Cheonan or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

There are almost limitless ways for somehow coming up with a face-saving statement that falls short of the “apology” that Lee earlier declared a prerequisite for talks. Relations may be tense but not so totally tense as to preclude holding negotiations yet again on the North’s nuclear program, which the North has made abundantly clear it’s not going to give up.

Nor is the North giving up on getting the US to resume shipments. The appointment of Wendy Sherman, the soft-lining to one-time top aide of Madeleine Albright when she was secretary of state during the second term of Bill Clinton in the White House, as undersecretary of state has got to be good news for North Korea.

Sherman, with Albright, attended mass games in Pyongyang in October 2000 as the personal guests of Kim Jong-Il. Although she had never served or studied overseas, she somehow became the envoy on North Korea under Albright, all in favor of reconciliation as later pursued in the six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program that ended in December 2008. It’s a safe bet that Sherman will continue to press for reconciliation, in the form of aid and efforts at resuming those talks.

North Korea has also scored a coup in persuading the Associated Press to open a bureau in Pyongyang — the first Western news organization to do so. For sure the bureau will be tightly constricted in terms of what to see and what not to see, and it’s hard to imagine the bureau’s North Korean assistant as anything other than a spy for the government or the Workers’ Party.

In this mix of politics and diplomacy, the Pyeongchang Olympics will be a recurring background theme. Certainly, IOC president Jacques Rogge has poured cold water on the idea of joint North-South hosting, but that doesn’t mean the idea is going away.

And even if it does, Rogge and the IOC cannot stop the formation of a joint team — something that South Koreans protest will mean the exclusion of better qualified South Koreans.

South Korean, meanwhile, is investing billions in the infrastructure for Pyeongchang while North Korea offers nothing beyond occasional statements. For both North and South, the long run-up to the games offers plenty of chances to score propaganda points — almost as important as wresting the games in the first place.

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