U.S. Marines, left, and South Korean Marines, wearing blue headbands on their helmets, take positions after landing on the beach during a joint military combined amphibious exercise in Pohang, South Korea.
By Doug Livermore, Columnist
Photo by: Kim Jun-bum/Yonhap via AP
Ever since North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, a perpetual state of war on the Korean Peninsula has pitted the northern Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) against the southern Republic of Korea (ROK) and its allies, most notably the United States (U.S.). [[i]] For nearly the last seven decades, the U.S. and ROK have maintained an ironclad alliance that has kept DPRK aggression in check. Those decades of joint military training, close diplomatic coordination, and concerted effort to ensure alignment of ROK and US interests maintained and strengthened the alliance.
However, in the last two months, the DPRK has undertaken a concerted “charm offensive” focused around the ongoing Winter Olympics in PyeongChang to undermine this alliance by dividing the ROK and U.S. [[ii]] The DPRK has proposed bilateral peace negotiations with the ROK that explicitly exclude the U.S., sent high-powered relatives of the North Korean dictator to directly appeal to South Korean people and their leaders, and even filled whole sections of the Olympic venue with energetic cheerleaders intended to portray a softer side to the regime. [[iii]] The intent of this propaganda campaign is to drive a wedge between the U.S. and ROK, encourage the departure of US forces from the Korean Peninsula, and leave the ROK vulnerable to a DKPRK invasion. [[iv]] For the continued security of ROK, the region, and the U.S., it is imperative that the allies resist these divisive DPRK efforts and maintain the strength of the U.S./ROK alliance.
Among all the other thorny international challenges that faced the Trump Administration during its first year in office, few held the potential for global catastrophe quite like the rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Over the last several years, the North Korean regime of Kim Jung Un pursued a campaign at breakneck pace to develop powerful nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles necessary to carry these warheads to intended targets around the Pacific Rim and even as far as the US mainland. [[v]] In response, the United Nations and the U.S. imposed crippling sanctions on the DPRK that have severely weakened the North Korean economy and even begun to undermine Kim’s support among elites. [[vi]] The Trump Administration announced its comprehensive “Maximum Pressure” campaign designed to reign in the DPRK in April of last year, which further elevated tensions. [[vii]] Increasingly bellicose rhetoric from both Kim and President Trump left many international security pundits convinced that open warfare on the Korean Peninsula was inevitable. [[viii]]
Then, as if by some miracle, the impasse seemingly broke in mid-January as Kim unexpectedly extended a hand of reconciliation to ROK President Moon Jae-In. After hurried diplomatic negotiations, President Moon agreed to host DPRK athletes as part of a joint Korean team at the Winter Olympics. [[ix]] Kim also sent his influential sister, Kim Yo Jong, who shortly after arriving in PyeongChang invited President Moon to visit the DPRK soon to meet with her brother – the first such meeting in over a decade. [[x]] By comparison, while Kim Yo Jong was rewriting diplomatic precedent with President Moon, she canceled at the last minute a planned meeting with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence – a clear insult intended to send a message to both the Americans and South Koreans. [[xi]]
Also, after years of stonewalling, this DPRK “charm offensive” includes renewed talks on cross-border family visitations, military-to-military communication, and economic collaboration. For President Moon, the opportunity to restart cross-border family visitations is particularly significant, given that his own parents left family behind when they fled North Korea for the South in 1950.[xii] Certainly, the Kim regime is aware of President Moon’s personal interest in reuniting divided Korean families, giving such discussions additional gravitas. Many observers at the Olympics have even suggested nominating the joint Korean hockey team for the Nobel Peace Prize. [[xiii]] The Winter Olympics have been the backdrop against which the Kim regime has launched a full-court press to woo the South Koreans and try to drive a wedge between the ROK and US.
However, the current North Korean effort is only the most recent iteration of a long-running effort to undermine the U.S./ROK alliance to weaken the ability of South Korea to resist North Korean aggression. For instance, after the DPRK withdrew from the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1993, it slyly initiated bilateral negotiations with the U.S. while intentionally excluded the ROK, which caused considerable friction within the US/ROK alliance.[xiv] When the pre-Olympic talks began in January, many experts saw it as a North Korean “propaganda campaign” designed to buy the Kim regime precious time to complete testing on nuclear armed ballistic missiles. [[xv]] Additionally, in deference to Winter Olympics, the U.S. and ROK agreed to delay their annual FOAL EAGLE/KEY RESOLVE military exercises, a delay that has done nothing to soften the Kim regime’s characteristic hostility to the exercises and any signs of U.S./ROK strategic cooperation. [[xvi]]
For all of the talk of détente between the DPRK and the ROK, it is clear that the U.S. and ROK still face a very sincere threat from the DPRK and the Kim regime. The DPRK counts some 1,190,000 personnel in its armed forces in near-constant readiness to invade the ROK, making it the fourth largest military in the world. [[xvii]] Despite the heartwarming images from PyeongChang of smiling Koreans competing under a banner of unification, the Kim regime in Pyongyang continues to pursue its designs to develop the very nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that it has threatened for years to use to destroy Seoul and Washington, DC. [[xviii]] With this threat in mind, it is important that neither the ROK nor U.S. be fooled by North Korea’s “charm offensive”. The Winter Olympics will soon end, the North Korean athletes and high-powered delegation will return to Pyongyang, but the threat posed by the Kim regime will remain – and the U.S./ROK alliance must remain vigilant.
[iii] Nicola Smith, “Former North Korean cheerleader describes orders to penetrate ‘heart of the enemy,” The Telegraph, February 19, 2018, accessed February 22, 2018, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/02/19/former-north-korean-cheerleader-describes-orders-penetrate-heart/.
[iv] Fredrick Vincenzo, “The Strategic Implications of America’s Coming Choice on the Korean Peninsula,” Small Wars Journal, November 15, 2017, accessed February 22, 2018, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/the-strategic-implications-of-america’s-coming-choice-on-the-korean-peninsula.
[[v]] David E. Sanger, Choe Sang-Hun and William J. Broad, “North Korea Tests a Ballistic Missile That Experts Say Could Hit California,” The New York Times, July 28, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/28/world/asia/north-korea-ballistic-missile.html.
[[vi]] Elizabeth Shim, “Elites in North Korea fear change as sanctions test regime,” United Press International, December 17, 2017, accessed February 21, 2018, https://www.upi.com/Elites-in-North-Korea-fear-change-as-sanctions-test-regime/7351512651639/.
[[vii]] Matthew Pennington, “Trump Strategy on NKorea: ‘Maximum Pressure and Engagement’,” Associated Press, April 14, 2017, https://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2017-04-14/trump-strategy-on-nkorea-maximum-pressure-and-engagement.
[[viii]] “North Korea says war with the U.S. is inevitable,” NBC News, December 7, 2017, accessed February 22, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/north-korea/north-korea-says-war-u-s-inevitable-n827296.
[[ix]] Nick Zaccardi, “IOC approves unified Korea Olympic team, 22 North Korean athletes,” NBC Sports, January 20, 2018, accessed February 22, 2018, http://olympics.nbcsports.com/2018/01/20/koreas-olympic-team-pyeongchang-north-south/.
[[x]] Steve George, Will Ripley and James Griffiths, “Kim Jong Un invites South Korean President Moon to Pyongyang,” Cable News Network, February 11, 2018, accessed February 22, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/09/asia/korea-north-south-meeting-olympics-intl/index.html.
[[xi]] “Pence’s office says North Korea canceled meeting with US during Olympics at last minute,” The Washington Post, February 20, 2018, accessed February 22, 2018, http://www.masslive.com/politics/index.ssf/2018/02/pences_office_says_north_korea.html.
[xii] Jung Min-ho, “Moon Jae-in: Son of war refugees rises to power,” The Korean Times, February 24, 2018, accessed February 23, 2018, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/05/356_229029.html.
[[xiii]] Sunghee Hwang, “McFlurries for Breakfast for North Korean Olympians,” Agence Free Press, February 21, 2018, accessed February 21, 2018, https://www.msn.com/en-us/sports/winter-olympics/mcflurries-for-breakfast-for-north-korean-olympians/ar-BBJpeL0?li=BBmkt5R&ocid=spartanntp.
[xiv] Narushige Michishita, North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns, 1966-2008, (New York: Routledge, 2010), 13-14.
[[xv]] Sandy Fitzgerald, “Bolton: NKorea Waging ‘Propaganda Campaign’ Through Talks,” Newsmax, January 9, 2018, accessed February 21, 2018, https://www.newsmax.com/Politics/john-bolton-north-korea-propaganda-campaign-talks/2018/01/09/id/836050/.
[[xvi]] Jesse Johnson, “North Korea ‘fully ready for both dialogue and war,’ state media says,” Japan Times, February 19, 2018, accessed February 21, 2018, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/02/19/asia-pacific/north-korea-fully-ready-dialogue-war-state-media-says/#.Wo5HW0xFwv0.
[[xviii]] Ed Mazza, “North Korean Propaganda Video Shows Animated Nuclear Attack On Washington, D.C.,” Huffington Post, March 3, 2016, accessed February 22, 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/north-korea-washington-nuclear-attack-video_us_56f884e0e4b0a372181a41af.
Doug Livermore works in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Intelligence) as an operational advisor as well as serving as a Special Forces officer with Special Operations Detachment-NATO in the Maryland Army National Guard. In addition to multiple combat deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan, Doug led special operations elements during sensitive contingency operations across Africa. He is a West Point graduate currently pursuing his master’s degree full time through Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. The views expressed in this article do not represent the positions of the Department of Defense or any other part of the U.S. Government.