North's Olympic decision
Efforts should continue to resume dialogue
North Korea has decided not to attend the Tokyo Summer Olympics set to commence July 23, virtually ending the Moon Jae-in administration's bid to utilize the sporting event as an opportunity to revitalize his peace initiative on the Korean Peninsula. The North's Olympic Committee cited the need to protect players from the persistent COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision, announced through the "Sports in the DPRK" website run by the North's sports ministry, is understandable in many ways since the isolated country has been desperate to prevent the spread of the coronavirus since early last year, blocking all channels connected to the outside and enforcing preventive quarantine measures.
Yet, the decision is regrettable as it can be taken to mean that Pyongyang wants to minimize contact with the international community, at least for a while, and stay away from dialogue with South Korea and the United States. This has also dampened the Moon administration's plan to use the Olympics to restart the inter-Korean dialogue, and denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington, and broker talks between Pyongyang and Tokyo to normalize their relations, similar to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
In his speech marking the March 1 Independence Movement Day, Moon said the Tokyo Olympics could provide North Korea with chances for dialogue with Japan and the U.S. as well as South Korea. To that end, Moon pledged to cooperate for Japan's successful hosting of the Summer Games. As the host nation, Japan had hoped for North Korea's attendance as it would add to the Olympics' success and open the way for relations with the North.
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden has been ramping up pressure on the recalcitrant North by raising the issues of its nuclear weapons program and human rights abuses. This might have prompted the North to believe it was not proper to seek dialogue with the U.S. for now. The Moon administration has been going all-out to mediate dialogue between the North and the U.S. Now the prospects are dimming for any progress in the North's denuclearization and President Moon's much-touted "peace process" on the peninsula.
North Korea has been taking a hostile approach toward the South since Seoul and Washington carried out their joint military exercise in early March. Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, said in a statement that the North would not seek any cooperation or exchanges with the South for the time being.
Even in this difficult situation, the Moon administration should make continued efforts to lure Pyongyang back to the negotiation table. It should persuade the North to reverse its decision, although there are few chances for the North to do so. Seoul also needs to take a practical approach toward promoting inter-Korean cooperation by, for instance, helping the North cope with COVID-19.
The Moon administration should work together more closely with neighboring countries to get the ball rolling in inter-Korean dialogue and denuclearization talks. It also must take into account the mounting great power rivalry between the U.S. and China to work out a new strategy to defuse tensions and ensure peace and stability on the peninsula.
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