The Korean peninsula over the years has been a shrimp between whales, a proverbial reference to its unwitting involvement in other nations’ disputes.
A slightly different version of that history repeated itself this week.
In striking a deal for North Korean participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics, South Korean President Moon Jae-in found himself sandwiched by two of his nation’s most central — yet competing — interests.
There is a desire to find reconciliation with North Korea, as the two countries have been separated by a decades-old war, and also a necessity to side with the United States, a close ally seeking to curb the totalitarian nation’s nuclear weapons program.
“He’s been pursuing a parallel diplomatic policy,” said Katharine Moon, a professor of Asian studies at Wellesley College. “Basically, it’s like having two partners, and you have to constantly dance with both of them, while at the same time not losing your own stance and your own posture.”
The South Korean leader so far has seemed to keep his balance.
In interviews, experts on inter-Korean relations say he’s done so in part by approaching the deal with North Korea cautiously and lowering expectations about its long-term significance in regard to denuclearization and unification on the peninsula.
The Olympics agreement, reached after nearly 12 hours of negotiations Tuesday, allows the North to bring a group of athletes, government officials and fans to Pyeongchang, the South Korean village serving as the base for the Games, which will be held Feb. 9-25.
It came after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose nuclear and missile provocations in 2017 sparked international sanctions and war threats from President Trump, extended an olive branch to the South during his annual New Year’s Day speech.
The deal ended two years of diplomatic silence between the two Koreas and offered the promise of decreased military tensions on the peninsula — at least until after the Games.
Moon sought the agreement, sensing an opportunity to end, if only temporarily, an escalating provocation cycle by the North.
He did so knowing that people in the South are divided politically over how to deal with North Korea — and that Trump has, until now, seemed largely skeptical about diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear crisis.
Moon, a liberal who came into office pledging a more conciliatory approach to the North, expressed gratitude toward the American president this week. He concluded that Trump’s unconventional pressure on North Korea, which includes some bellicose rhetoric on Twitter, created an environment in which the totalitarian state might be ready to deal, analysts said.
“The deterrence by the United States and the unpredictability of Trump have worked in conjunction to pressure North Korea to come to the negotiation table,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
Besides a desire to avoid war of any kind, nuclear or otherwise, the reason the South would want the isolationist North to participate in the Olympics has its roots in the Korean War, which ended with an armistice in 1953, permanently splitting a nation with hundreds of years of shared culture and language.
The uneasy truce separated families and caused decades of tension.
The North took a socialist path that led to its isolation and the impoverishment of many of its residents. The South eventually chose democracy and became the world’s 11th-largest economy.
The deal is the latest example in which both Koreas have expressed a seemingly contradictory desire for unification while also maintaining a warlike posture.
“We are the same nation,” said Paik Hak-soon, who directs the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank. “We have to eventually achieve unification.”
The deal reached by negotiators this week is largely limited to the Olympics, and Moon sought to ease the concerns of his political opponents by pledging to not seek a reduction in international sanctions without progress toward denuclearization.
He and Trump spoke by telephone for 30 minutes Wednesday, affirming a commitment for talks between the Koreas to continue and to avoid any military conflict during that process.
Not all of Moon’s constituents are on board with the approach, however, and the deal could hurt him politically if it backfires, experts said.
“We should keep in mind that, while they are competing in the Olympics, they will continue producing fissile material to make nuclear weapons,” said Chun Yung-woo, a national security advisor to former President Lee Myung-bak, a conservative who took a hard line on inter-Korean relations.
Chun said he believes the deal would create a temporary illusion of peace, but he acknowledged that Moon didn’t appear to enter into it naively.
“He’s a little bit cautious,” Chun said, “and I think that is right.”
That caution in part stems from a recognition that many in the South are skeptical of the North’s nationalistic overtures, which have fallen flat in previous years.
A poll conducted by Gallup Korea in the days after Kim’s speech, for example, indicated that many South Koreans did not believe the North had changed its attitude. Only a small percentage of the poll’s respondents said they believed North Korea would abandon its nuclear weapons, according to Gallup Korea.
Another poll, conducted by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University in 2016, indicated that a slim majority of the South Korean respondents believed that unification was necessary. Other respondents were neutral or said unification was not necessary, according to the poll.
The institute’s poll also showed that while many respondents consider shared ethnic roots as a reason for unification, an increasing number of respondents favor unification as a way to prevent war.
Moon affirmed his goal of alleviating the potential for an armed conflict.
“I will take a step forward along with the people in an effort to help create an everyday life that is peaceful and safe, and with no worry over war,” he said during a televised speech Wednesday.
Fulfilling that promise, experts believe, would most probably require a diplomatic breakthrough involving North Korea and the United States, with Moon in the middle.
Stiles is a special correspondent.