The 23rd Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang has entered its final stretch. This year’s Winter Games have provided crucial momentum for reconciliation between South and North Korea as a result of North Korea’s participation in the Olympics and the creation of a joint inter-Korean team in women’s ice hockey. Many are wondering whether the hard-earned momentum for inter-Korean dialogue will be kept alive after the Olympics. Here is Moon Sung-mook, chairman of the Unification Strategy Center of the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
As the largest-ever Winter Games, the PyeongChang Olympics has been drawing worldwide attention, with many paying close attention to North Korea’s participation in the event. North Korea has changed a lot compared to late last year. It restored a communication line at the truce village of Panmunjom and even proposed an inter-Korean summit, reflecting leader Kim Jong-un’s wish to make this year historical for the two Koreas, as indicated in his New Year’s speech. Obviously, inter-Korean ties are changing in a positive way, while the U.S. is hinting at the possibility of talks with North Korea. But we’ll have to wait and see if the current mood may actually lead to a fundamental change in diplomacy.
With North Korea-U.S. dialogue emerging as a key concern in regional diplomacy after the Olympics, the two sides are engaging in a fierce tug-of-war. At the Munich Security Conference on February 17, U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster stressed that U.N. members should all join U.N. Security Council’s sanctions on North Korea. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence showed a hardline stance toward North Korea during his stay in South Korea for the PyeongChang Olympics, but he said that the U.S. may be open to unconditional informal talks with North Korea. Also, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that he is waiting for an indication that North Korea is “ready to talk.” It seems the U.S. has left open the possibility of dialogue with North Korea while remaining committed to existing sanctions on the North. Here is Hong Hyun-ik, senior research at the Sejong Institute.
The U.S. intended to cooperate with the international community and South Korea and to intensify its maximum pressure campaign until North Korea signals its will toward denuclearization. Following the North Korean leader’s New Year’s speech, however, the North sent its delegation, an art troupe and a cheering squad to the PyeongChang Olympics in South Korea, and also suggested a South-North summit as well. The U.S. has been concerned that such a rapid progress in inter-Korean relations may pour cold water on its maximum pressure campaign that it has consistently maintained and its strategy of strengthening sanctions on North Korea. Now, it is shifting from its previous stance, as seen in Pence’s remarks about “unconditional informal talks.” I think this is the result of the South Korean government’s constant efforts to cement the alliance with the U.S. and to stress the need for talks with the North, even with sanctions in place at the same time.
Meanwhile, North Korea has refrained from provocations this year and is now expressing its position through Rodong Sinmun, which is the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party. On February 17, the paper denied the possibility of talks with the U.S., saying that North Korea has done everything that needs to be done and owns everything, so it is not thirsty for dialogue with the U.S. Mr. Hong explains what Pyongyang’s true intentions are.
What North Korea wants the most is to hold talks with the U.S. as a nuclear weapons state. But after its Hwasong-15 missile launch late last year, the U.S. hinted that it could launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea. Pyongyang is feeling uneasy because it cannot rule out the possibility of Washington’s military action in the case of its additional provocations. So it is trying to justify its possession of nuclear weapons by using an improvement in relations with South Korea and to pursue dialogue with the U.S. That’s what North Korea has in mind. However, the U.S. remains firm in its previous position that dialogue is not necessary unless North Korea shows its determination to denuclearize. On the surface, North Korea says that it doesn’t care about talks with the U.S., with an intense tug-of-war with the U.S. in mind. But in reality, it is carefully seeking dialogue with Washington.
With both North Korea and the U.S. sticking to their respective positions and only exploring to learn the other side’s strategy, South Korea remains cautious. In a meeting with journalists both from Korea and overseas at the main press center in PyeongChang on February 17, South Korean President Moon Jae-in showed his expectations for better inter-Korean relations and emphasized the need for North Korea-U.S. dialogue. In regards to the possibility of another inter-Korean summit, he expressed his view by using a Korean proverb meaning, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Here again is Mr. Hong.
The U.S. is concerned that inter-Korean relations have progressed way too fast, and even many South Korean citizens suspect that North Korea might be deceiving the South. Against this backdrop, President Moon implied that an inter-Korean summit would be possible only when the U.S. and North Korea hold dialogue about denuclearization as the U.S. wants, based on the strong South Korea-U.S. alliance. Also, any concerns that the South Korean public has should be dismissed before any inter-Korean summit materializes. The president also meant that Seoul and Pyongyang should first resolve pending issues in some way and come up with pragmatic ways to advance bilateral ties, considering that a summit is not a meeting between individuals but a meeting between different governments. The pending inter-Korean issues include Seoul’s economic sanctions against North Korea, working-level military talks between the two sides and the resumption of the reunions of separated families. I imagine South Korea will make preparations step by step to move toward a summit.
While North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong attended the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics on February 9, Ivanka Trump, the daughter of U.S. President Donald Trump, is scheduled to visit South Korea and attend the closing ceremony of the Olympics on February 25. She serves as an adviser to her father in the White House. Although Ivanka is not a special envoy, diplomatic experts are guessing that she may deliver her father’s message about the North Korean nuclear issue. If North Korea sends a delegation to the closing ceremony, it might be possible to see a contact between North Korea and the U.S.
While the U.S. sent Vice President Mike Pence to the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics, North Korea dispatched its ceremonial leader Kim Yong-nam as well as Kim Yo-jong, who is considered the most influential figure in North Korea, except top leader Kim Jong-un. So, Pence’s diplomacy was somewhat overshadowed by the North Korean delegation. Also, the international community didn’t evaluate his tough stance toward North Korea positively. To turn the situation around and celebrate the Olympics hosted by its traditional ally, the U.S. will send Trump’s daughter to South Korea, as he previously said that he would send his family to the PyeongChang Olympics. But Ivanka is not a North Korea expert, so it is important who will accompany her. If North Korea again dispatches a high-level delegation to the South, diplomatic experts from the North and the U.S. could meet. Or, Ivanka and the head of the North Korean delegation might hold a surprise meeting. The entire world is focusing on this possibility.
The opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Games offered a watershed moment for an improvement in relations between South and North Korea. Attention turns to whether regional security will see a similarly positive change on the occasion of the closing ceremony of the Olympics. In the meantime, South Korea’s diplomatic role in mediating between North Korea and the U.S. is becoming increasingly important.
[Interview] School Helps Young Defectors Find Dreams
There is a very special school called Jayuteo School in Sangdo-dong, southwestern Seoul. The name “Jayuteo” means “ground for freedom.” This school is a place for defectors from North Korea. Let’s hear from assistant administrator Lee Wook-jae.
The school provides various educational programs to young people from North Korea so they can prepare to enter college. It started in 2003, when we decided to teach English to North Korean newcomers who faced difficulties due to the language. Currently, 15 students are attending the school. They attend the classes they chose themselves. So they don’t stay at the school all day long but come and go at the specified times. The average age of the students is 27 or 28. They are rather old, compared to students at other alternative schools for teenage North Korean defectors.
Most of the students here set their goal on entering college. Young North Korean defectors who arrived in South Korea via China or a third country often find it difficult to prepare for college in regular schools because many of them did not complete a regular education course. This school assists the students in going to college and also fostering basic academic skills to be used in college.
For students who hope to enter college, we teach three main subjects—English, Korean language and computer skills. Korean language education involves reading and writing. The 12-week program comprises one semester, and new subjects could be added in each semester. In the second half of each year, for example, we provide the life science class to students who want to go to nursing school.
As the students vary in age, their learning abilities and academic levels are all different. That’s why the school provides education tailored to individual students, based on their history. The students are pretty satisfied with the programs. Two students, Lee Mi-na and Kim Tae-mi, share their opinions.
I don’t think I can catch up with other students at private English-learning institutes because the level of South Korean students is too high. But here, I started by learning the English alphabet. Now, I’m learning the high school course.
The teachers are not rushing things but teach us easily and slowly. Students here move at their own rate and progress individually. I like that part.
The place is more than just a school, since young defectors can mingle with friends of their age. While eating together every evening, they can share a special bond with their friends and teachers. Let’s hear again from the students.
I can eat supper here, and the food is great. Officials are very kind. If I don’t see them even for a day, I miss them. Their smile is warm and friendly. Little wonder I’m always willing to come here.
When I attended a private learning institute to prepare for a qualification exam, it was difficult for me to get close to classmates who were younger than me. I ate with them and spent some time with them. But that was it. But here, people were all from North Korea, just like me. Whatever they say, I can understand what they mean. We can talk a lot, even about a small topic. It’s fun. Unlike in other schools, we can communicate with each other well here. When my friend says something to me, I can feel she means it. I’m thankful for that, and I really like the feeling.
One of the most popular programs is a book club, where the participants read books together, get extensive information and learn how to understand society. The book club is a great chance for the North Koreans, who had lived in a completely different society, to indirectly experience the social system in South Korea. Here again is Mr. Lee.
This is a very interesting program. Last year, we mostly read books about society and history. When reading books about modern history, for instance, we can have a deeper insight into what is happening in our society right now because modern history is closely associated with various issues today. So we can take a look around and think independently and objectively without being swayed by our own situation. I still remember one student, who is now a college student. After reading a book about modern history, she wrote why she should vote and what her vote meant. Most South Koreans may take voting for granted, but the act of casting ballots could have a special meaning for North Korean defectors. The fact that she found great significance in her one vote is a positive development and meaningful change.
Students are also looking forward to an annual camp program, which is hugely popular with the participants. Last year, South Korean students were paired up with North Korean ones and the pairs joined the literature camp program. Not simply reading some literary pieces, they also shared their opinions about literature and spent time together to create precious memories. In this way, students enjoy various programs here. After graduation, some of them volunteer to work at the school. Teachers are immensely happy to see the graduates return what they had received to society. Mr. Lee continues.
A few graduates began to do some volunteer work here recently. We invited a person who is attending graduate school now to our book club. She serves as an assistant teacher to read books with the students. It’s encouraging. It feels like we created a virtuous circle. I hope many more graduates will follow suit. I wish students who have attended this school will remember the help they received and give it back to others here or somewhere else.
The teachers are also delighted to hear the students confidently talking about their dreams. When they first came to the school, they didn’t know what they should do and what they could do. While studying here, they have regained confidence and made plans for their future. That’s the moment when the teachers find their work rewarding. Student Lee Mi-na talks about her dream.
Today, I was enrolled in the sports education department. I had been a swimmer for about six years in North Korea. Unfortunately, I had to quit because of financial difficulties. But after studying, I felt more confident. I found myself hoping to learn more about this area. After graduation, I hope to become a trainer to teach pilates or yoga. Or I might teach aquarobics by using my experience as a swimmer. I’m not sure if I can do it, but I’ll work hard to fulfill my dream.
Many more young defectors from North Korea will hopefully find their dreams at this school.