In late 2017, as a result of the multiple nuclear and missile tests by North Korea, it can be argued that the tensions between North and South Korea were at their highest point since the Korean War. By that time, North Korea’s military had conducted its sixth nuclear test and sixteenth long-range-missile test. These belligerent actions were wrapped in an evermore threatening rhetoric by the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. As a response, South Korea’s government strongly condemned the actions of its northern neighbor and redoubled its efforts to impose of increasingly aggressive UN sanctions on Pyongyang.
Tensions between the two countries grew to the point that Washington repeatedly expressed its readiness to go to war with North Korea if it did rein in its aggressive actions. Just when the conflict seemed to dangerously spin out of control, Kim Jong-un shrewdly managed to dramatically defuse the tensions with South Korea without having to make any significant concessions or modify his stance. He just had to make a simple announcement.
By announcing that North Korea would send an Olympic delegation to the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics, Kim Jong-un managed to instantly defuse most of the pressure exerted on it by the South Korean government. Without making any significant reconciliatory promises or moves, he obtained significant political and economic dividends. The effectiveness of this political maneuver can be appreciated by the fact the Seoul’s discourse involving its northern neighbor went from being extremely confrontational and assertive before the announcement, to being conciliatory and welcoming after it.
Before North Korea’s announcement of its intention to participate in the Olympics, both South Korea and the United States responded to Pyongyang’s unprecedented military activities with their own military drills and sought tougher UN sanctions on the North. For example, North Korea’s missile test on November 29, 2017, President Moon Jae-in strongly condemned the tests and promised a stern response to Pyongyang’s provocations. This assertiveness was reflected in Seoul’s preparations to conduct its own missile test.
Moreover, Seoul and Washington took further steps to significantly increase the pressure on Pyongyang by pushing for tougher UN sanctions on North Korea’s oil trade, textile exports and overseas workers. All of these political, diplomatic and military movements were extensively covered by the South Korean official media in a very confrontational way. This barrage of attacks and warnings in the South Korean media came to a screeching halt when Kim Jong-un announced the intention of North Korea to participate in the Olympic games.
By simply announcing its intention to participate in the Pyeongchang Olympics, North Korea was able to transform the confrontational and assertive discourse in the South Korean media into a reconciliatory and friendly one. At the demand of the North Korean regime, Seoul agreed to postpone the joint South Korea-USA military exercises scheduled to take place before the Olympics. Also, Seoul offered to warmly welcome the North Korean delegation and cover all of the expenses for their participation. This friendly treatment of the North significantly irritated Seoul’s vital ally, the United States. Vice President Pence warned that North Korea’s participation in the Olympics was “just a cover up for the repressive regime” and a “beautiful photo opportunity” to deceive the South Korean government and people about its real intentions. The fact that Pyongyang had been accelerating the development of their conventional and nuclear arsenals confirmed this assessmt.