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Moon's plan for inter-Korean talks at Tokyo Games thwarted

Athletes from both South and North Korea jointly enter the stadium under the Korea Unification flag during the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in Gangwon Province, in this Feb. 9, 2018 photo. Korea Times file
Athletes from both South and North Korea jointly enter the stadium under the Korea Unification flag during the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in Gangwon Province, in this Feb. 9, 2018 photo. Korea Times file

By Nam Hyun-woo

President Moon Jae-in's plan to use the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games as a vehicle for facilitating talks with North Korea appears to have run aground, as Pyongyang has declared that it will not send its athletes to the sporting event.

The plan has been considered to be virtually the last chance for Moon to revive the stalled inter-Korean talks and Pyongyang-Washington negotiations on denuclearization, as the country will thereafter be engulfed in the presidential race, with Moon's term ending in May 2022.

On Tuesday, according to "Sports in the DPRK Korea," a website on sports affairs in North Korea, during its general assembly meeting on March 25, Pyongyang's Olympic Committee decided not to participate in the Games out of fear of COVID-19 infections.

"The Democratic People's Republic of Korea has decided not to participate in the 32nd Olympic Games in order to protect our athletes from the global health crisis situation related to the coronavirus, as proposed by committee members during the general assembly," the website said.

Earlier, the website had reported that the North had held the meeting to discuss "practical issues," but it had not announced its absence at the event, which is scheduled to kick off on July 23.

President Moon Jae-in, second from left, sings South Korea's national anthem during the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 9, with the presence of Kim Yo-jong, right, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister, and Kim Yong-nam, center, then the North's nominal head of state. AP-Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in, second from left, sings South Korea's national anthem during the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 9, with the presence of Kim Yo-jong, right, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's sister, and Kim Yong-nam, center, then the North's nominal head of state. AP-Yonhap

The announcement comes as a heavy blow to Moon's efforts to pull off his peace initiative through dialogues with high-profile figures from the North at the Olympics.

During his speech on this year's March First Independence Movement Day, Moon said that the Tokyo Olympics could be a chance for dialogue among the two Koreas, the U.S. and Japan, and that Seoul would cooperate for the success of the Olympics.

Moon has been successful in using the Olympic Games as a tool for inter-Korean talks, having Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, visit the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games held in South Korea. Her visit led to a series of inter-Korean and U.S.-North Korea summits later that year.

In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean Sports Minister Kim Il-guk speaks during a national Olympic Committee meeting, March 25, during which North Korea decided not to participate in the Tokyo Olympics because of the coronavirus. AP-Yonhap
In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean Sports Minister Kim Il-guk speaks during a national Olympic Committee meeting, March 25, during which North Korea decided not to participate in the Tokyo Olympics because of the coronavirus. AP-Yonhap

As the North announced its absence from the Tokyo Games, Pyongyang watchers said that Moon's bid to revive a hopes for peace through the event had been derailed.

"The announcement came quickly, given that the event is scheduled in late July," said Park Won-gon, a professor of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University. "Many other countries are yet to decide their participation in the Games even though the COVID-19 situation in Japan is unlikely to turn around dramatically. Given North Korea's belligerent rhetoric and series of missile launches in recent weeks, the announcement could be interpreted as a message that North Korea will not respond to the joint efforts between South Korea, the U.S. and Japan to reach out to Pyongyang for talks."

Park added that the North's Olympic Committee does not have the authority to decide the country's participation in the Games. Thus, it can be assumed that there have been high-ranking discussions involving Kim Jong-un himself, and that the decision is meant as a highly orchestrated political message.

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, also said Moon's peace initiative has now lost one of its vehicles, with the North's absence from the Games, and that South Korea should explore other opportunities.

"Since President Moon has been stressing the virtuous cycle in inter-Korean and the U.S.-North relations, he is anticipated to focus on finding other opportunities," Yang said. "And the precondition for this is a recovery in U.S.-North Korea relations."

Park echoed that the tactic of seeking peace through sporting events will only be possible when the relationship between Washington and Pyongyang improves.

"Looking forward, there will be a stalemate in seeking a peace mood through sports," Park said. "After U.S.-North Korea working-level nuclear talks in Stockholm were broken off in 2019, it became clear that North Korea is considering inter-Korean relations to be subordinate to its relations with the U.S. Though South Korea is pursuing co-hosting the 2032 Summer Games with the North as a next step, this move will become possible only after an improvement in U.S.-North Korea relations."


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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