The world is a month away from the PyeonChang 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. My friends in South Korea have already bought tickets for multiple events. What a wonderful opportunity for the parents to expose their two boys to displays of athletic skills and friendly competition between nations in the Olympic spirit.
All is good, except for the fear of nuclear war triggered by impulsive leaders in North Korea and the United States. Recent rare talks between North and South Korea give us a glimmer of hope that the Olympic spirit transcends the games into politics. Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympic games is quoted saying that “the most important thing is not to win, but to take part.” This is even more important in the current conflict between North Korea and South Korea. The most important part is not to agree on everything, but to talk.
The Olympics offer a unique moment to de-escalate tensions and promote peace on the Korean Peninsula. The first talks already led to agreements on North Korea sending a delegation to the Olympics, to hold talks on lowering tension along the border, and to reopen a military hotline. Any small step away from the brink of war deserves support from all nations and civil society. Conflict resolution professionals always look for openings in intractable conflicts such as this one. The opportunities of direct dialog between Koreans need to be realistically addressed.
First, non-Koreans should let Koreans talk. The Koreans are the experts on their interests and needs. The U.S. especially should take a back seat, making support for continued Korean-led diplomacy clear. President Trump has already tweeted support, which is helpful but fragile. With a single belligerent tweet, the President could derail the entire effort. It is therefore important for peace advocacy groups, legislators, and the American public to voice their support for diplomacy over war.
Second, even the smallest successes are in fact big ones. The mere circumstance that after about two years of not meeting, high-level delegations from both sides came together is a win. However, this is not the time to expect grand concessions, like North Korea suddenly halting its nuclear weapons program.
This is the time to positively acknowledge both Koreas successfully stepping away from the brink of war, which could have gone nuclear with the involvement of the United States. These small beginnings have already reduced immediate tensions and open pathways to long-term improvements around broader issues such as a North Korean nuclear freeze, the suspension of military exercises by the US and South Korea, the official end of the Korean war, the withdrawal of US troops from the region, and long-term reconciliation efforts between the two nations.
Third, beware of spoilers. The Korean conflict is complex, enduring and influenced by the pressures and dynamics of geopolitics. There will always be individuals and groups trying to…