A total of 2,925 athletes from 92 different countries will participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which will kick off on February 9. It marks the largest Winter Olympic Games ever, with four more countries and 67 more athletes than the Sochi Olympics four years ago. South Korea will have 144 athletes, while 22 North Korean athletes will be competing in five sports. Among the 92 countries, Singapore, Malaysia, Nigeria, Ecuador, Eritrea and Kosovo will make their first ever Winter Olympics appearances. Apart from athletes, 26 leaders from 21 nations are scheduled to visit PyeongChang. The upcoming Olympics is drawing keen attention, as the global sports festival will also serve as a high-profile multilateral diplomatic stage, the first to be hosted by South Korea since the inauguration of the Moon Jae-in government. Here is Professor Kim Hyun-wook at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy.

Ahead of the PyeongChang Olympics, there has been progress in relations between South and North Korea. A North Korean art troupe will perform in Gangneung in South Korea’s Gangwon-do Province on the eve of the Olympics, while ski teams from the two Koreas have held joint training at Masikryong Ski Resort in North Korea. It seems many are paying close attention to new developments in inter-Korean relations on the occasion of the Olympics and the possibility of North Korea-U.S. dialogue. The Olympics will provide significant momentum for leaders from neighboring countries to come to PyeongChang and discuss security conditions on the Korean Peninsula.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in will host a reception for foreign guests ahead of the opening ceremony of the Winter Games. During the Olympic period, he will hold bilateral talks with leaders from 14 nations to discuss mutual concerns in depth. Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will hold a summit on February 9. The two heads of state are expected to stress the importance of strategic cooperation in their North Korea policies. The South Korean president will also hold a meeting with China’s Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng, who will visit South Korea as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s special envoy. Moon is expected to ask for Beijing’s cooperation for his peace vision. What grabs our attention most is a meeting between Moon and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence has repeatedly said that he would prevent the Olympics from being exploited as North Korea’s propaganda tool. He has also mentioned Washington’s existing, tough stance toward North Korea. When he arrives in South Korea, he will likely deliver Washington’s North Korea policy to the South Korean president. During their talks, I think Moon and Pence will share the same view on international sanctions on North Korea.

Attention is also being paid to who will lead a high-ranking North Korean delegation. The chief delegate is expected to convey North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s message to the South Korean president. The delegation might be led by Choe Ryong-hae, vice chairman of the Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly or Kim Yong-chol, head of the United Front Department. Special attention is being paid to whether the high-ranking North Korean delegation will meet with high-level officials from major countries, especially U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

It seems North Korea hopes to pave the way for dialogue with the U.S. through the PyeongChang Olympics. If that’s the case, the North may send a high-level official equivalent to Pence, like Choe Ryong-hae, to South Korea to create some positive momentum for dialogue with the U.S. For now, Pyongyang and Washington are showing no signs of holding talks. But South Korea’s active mediation could provide some clue to dialogue between the North and the U.S., although the two sides are still poles apart in their views on denuclearization. The behind-the-scenes efforts could lead to talks between North Korea and the U.S.

Meanwhile, North Korea abruptly cancelled an inter-Korean joint cultural performance, which was initially scheduled to be held at Mt. Geumgang in the North on February 4. North Korea sent a telegram on January 29 to notify the South of the cancellation, taking issue with South Korean media reports. Some say that inter-Korean relations have progressed smoothly but are now at an important crossroads. Mr. Kim talks about North Korea’s true intentions behind the cancellation.

Actually, this isn’t the first time North Korea has called off a plan agreed on by both Koreas. In January, Pyongyang suddenly changed the date of sending its inspection team to South Korea for its scheduled art troupe performance after already cancelling it once. I think North Korea is trying to get a head start on the South in bilateral talks. It would have been necessary for South Korea to bring diesel oil to Mt. Geumgang to help North Korea supply electricity for a joint performance. But there is controversy over whether the act may have breached international sanctions on the North, and the Seoul government is very wary about that. It seems North Korea wants the South to violate the sanctions and subsequently make its North Korea policy different from Washington’s. In other words, the North wants to create a divide between Seoul and Washington. The abrupt cancellation is seen as North Korea’s gesture aimed at its own gain.

The Unification Ministry in Seoul expressed regret over North Korea’s unilateral decision, stressing that the North should implement bilateral agreements based on mutual respect and understanding, as the two sides have both taken a hard-earned first step toward improving inter-Korean ties. There are concerns that this kind of flip-flopping by North Korea may affect other plans the South and North have agreed upon.

The South Korean government clearly expressed its discontent with the North’s unilateral cancellation of the planned event. I think the government did what it had to do. It is true that South Korea wants to improve relations with the North and hold inter-Korean dialogue. But North Korea also badly wants contact with the South. Currently, international sanctions place a great burden on North Korea. The North feels an urgent need to ease the sanctions, including those by the U.S., by using inter-Korean ties. So, I don’t think North Korea will cancel other scheduled joint events simply because the South Korean government expressed its displeasure to the North.

President Moon has presented his peace vision, in which South Korea will induce North Korea to participate in the PyeongChang Olympics and eventually resolve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully. With North Korea and the U.S. fiercely confronting each other over the nuclear row, experts are saying that the South should display its diplomatic skills wisely so the rare momentum for inter-Korean dialogue at the Olympics will lead to talks between North Korea and the U.S.

The U.S. is reportedly talking about a “bloody nose” attack on North Korea. If South Korea and the U.S. hold their postponed combined military exercises after the Olympics, North Korea will be furious and may launch a provocation. So, during the period of the international sports festival, behind-the-scenes diplomacy is very important. It is a period where the South Korean government should be in the process of coordinating conditions for talks to be accepted by both North Korea and the U.S. The possibility of their future dialogue depends on how effective the coordination will be. It is essential to create a mood for dialogue first. In the course of discussions, North Korea and the U.S. may reach an agreement somehow. It is most important to set minimal pre-conditions and prompt the two sides to jumpstart dialogue.

With the PyeongChang Winter Games drawing nearer, international calculations surrounding the nuclear issue are becoming more complicated. It’s time to ponder how to deal with inter-Korean relations as well as the North Korean nuclear issue after the Olympics.

[Interview] Exhibition Features Theme of Unification

A special exhibition under the theme of unification is being held at Seoul Museum of Art. Entering the lobby, visitors can first see an installation art piece titled “Unification Locomotive” by artist Kang Jin-mo. The artwork features a train running on a railway that follows the contours of the Korean Peninsula. When the train brushes past glass bottles near the railway, unification-themed music is played. Let’s hear from museum curator Oh Yu-jeong.

Wine bottles and water bottles are installed on both sides of the railway. The amount of water contained in each bottle is different. When the object shaped like a train passes, the bottles produce sound and a music piece titled “If the Day Comes” is played. The sheet music composed by Lee Ho-jae is also placed there. The installation artwork contains an ardent wish for unification and a future-oriented perspective on a unified Korea.

The exhibition opened on December 5 last year to raise public awareness of peace and the unification of Korea. Under the theme of “Peace and Co-existence, Future of Unification and Hope,” the show consists of two exhibits. Ms. Oh gives us details on the exhibits.

The first exhibit is “Border 155.” It’s been more than 60 years since Korea was divided, and today, many young people are quite indifferent to unification issues. In this situation, we wanted the public to face up to reality and think about unification once again. Another exhibit, “Peace Together,” shows the future of unification, its vision and hope.

The exhibition displays some 80 works of art, including 15 pieces offered by ordinary citizens who participated in a public contest. The figure 155 in the exhibit title “Border 155” refers to the 155-mile-long Military Demarcation Line separating the two Koreas. Many decades have passed since national division, and the displayed works make visitors think of the need for unification at this moment in time.

A picture shows two steel towers, with one hoisting the South Korean national flag and the other raising the North Korean one. This work titled “A Bizarre Scene” by artist Kim Jeong-heon reveals the reality where national division has now become routine so people are hardly aware of it. Artist Ahn Sang-soo’s photo titled “Border” expresses hope that the border between South and North Korea will disappear. Another work “My Hometown” by Yang Ji-hee was created in cooperation with people from various age groups, including teenage North Korean defectors. Artist Yang says she was inspired by her experience of volunteer work at an alternative school for North Korean students.

There were students who were born in South Korea but their parents were North Korean defectors. First, I told them to ask their parents what their North Korean hometowns were like. I told them to draw what they heard about. Secondly, I asked students who had defected from North Korea themselves about their hometowns and explained their descriptions to other South Korean people in various age groups. Then I told the South Koreans to draw what they heard about. I gathered the two different types of drawings. When the paintings drawn by South Korean kids missed something, I let students from North Korea or those with North Korean parents fill the voids to complete the paintings. And I put all the paintings together to create one big picture. I imagined unification would be like that. While recognizing the differences of other people and complementing each other, we could still create harmony. With this hope in mind, I tried to create a small unification through this picture.

At first, each student drew a picture on a piece of A4 paper. Later, the pieces were all brought together to form a huge art piece. The process of creating this work is explained in detail in a video installed at the exhibition hall. The artwork was a very special experience for artist Yang, of course, and all the participants as well. Here again is Ms. Yang.

A first-year middle school student drew a picture after hearing the description of his North Korean friend. The two met at the exhibition hall. The North Korean kid was so impressed to see the picture. He said the picture described his hometown so well that it reminded him of his childhood friends. Most North Korean escapees do not bring photos with them since they have to go through a grueling defection process, like crossing the river. The boy told me that it was the only picture of his North Korean hometown.

The second exhibit “Peace Together” is about artworks that show ongoing efforts to heal the pain of division. One such work is “Hand in Hand” by North Korean artist Seon Mu. In this picture, children are running hand in hand, smiling brightly. The flags the children wear on their chests indicate different countries, such as the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, France and Germany. The phrase “We Want Peace” below the children shows that they should hold other people’s hands first for the sake of peace and unification. Ms. Oh Yu-jeong talks about another eye-catching work.

In the Peace Together exhibit, I wanted to introduce Roger Shepherd, a photo artist from New Zealand. He has taken photos of mountains both in South and North Korea for about 10 years. South Koreans are not allowed to travel to North Korea and vice versa, but this foreigner has visited the two Koreas freely to collect beautiful photos of the Korean Peninsula. South Korean people will probably only think of Mt. Baekdu when they hear about North Korean nature. But Shepherd has very rare photos, such as the ones about Bukpotae Mountain in Ryanggang Province. He visited the unknown mountain himself, even climbing the tree there to take pictures. The photographer has taken photos of the Baekdu-Daegan mountain range, which extends from Mt. Baekdu on the North Korea-China border all the way to Mt. Jiri in the southern part of South Korea, in various angles.

When the exhibition opened in early December, tension escalated on the Korean Peninsula. But in less than two months, a rare, peaceful mood is being created here, as North Korea will participate in the PyeongChang Winter Games. The positive mood will hopefully last for a long time to settle permanent peace in the region.