Stratfor’s 2018 Annual Forecast laid out North Korea’s accelerating timeline on achieving a nuclear deterrent and the U.S. decision on whether to intervene militarily. While South Korea is a U.S. ally, it also has the most to lose if conflict erupts. An incremental warming of ties between the two Koreas risks widening the gap between Washington and Seoul and letting Pyongyang pursue its nuclear capabilities undeterred.
The approaching Winter Olympics in South Korea have presented North Korea with an opportunity to make quick and relatively easy progress with its neighbor at a critical moment in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. And on Jan. 9, representatives of the two countries on the divided peninsula met at Panmunjom for their first face-to-face talks since December 2015. As for the Olympics question, the negotiations were a success. But the North made it abundantly clear that it has no intention of discussing or considering a shift in its nuclear strategy, highlighting why South Korea will continue to remain at the mercy of forces out of its control.
In the Olympic talks, North Korea, as expected, agreed to send athletes and cheerleaders to the Pyeongchang Games. It also intends to send a high-ranking delegation. The North's participation in the games gives Seoul some assurance that Pyongyang will refrain from disruptive weapons tests during the event — although no guarantee. North Korea will also consider marching with the South under a joint Korean flag in the opening ceremony. The talks also made progress on broader inter-Korean relations, including an agreement for the two militaries to discuss the easing of border tensions. They also revealed that a military hotline was reopened on Jan. 3, adding a second line to the diplomatic line opened on Jan. 2. The government in Seoul said it would consider a temporary easing of sanctions on travel by North Korean officials if it would be needed to ensure their participation in the games. This would be a small concession that runs counter to the U.S. emphasis on sanctions to stop North Korea's nuclear program. And future talks could address the reopening of the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex — and that move would require a broader rollback of South Korean sanctions.
Since the dramatic escalation of tensions with North Korea in 2017, South Korea has been the weakest participant in a spiraling crisis that could end in a catastrophic war. In recent months, Seoul has tried to gain greater control of its fate by reaching out to China and Japan. And for most of the past year, it has been trying to warm ties with the real driver of conflict, North Korea.
With the Olympic talks, North Korea is also reaching out. It has made rapid strides in its nuclear weapons program over the past year, edging closer to obtaining a credible nuclear deterrent. As the window closes for thwarting its development of a nuclear device capable of hitting the U.S. mainland, Washington will need to decide whether to strike the North in an attempt to take out its nuclear program. With numerous weapons tests yet to complete, North Korea's diplomatic outreach to the South helps to buy it breathing room. The move also lets the North show that the United States stands apart from the consensus of China, Russia and South Korea against a military solution, and it exploits the divide between the United States and South Korea, which eagerly wants to prevent military conflict on the peninsula. This tentative alignment of the two Koreas will spur Russia and China to exploit any cracks in the U.S. and South Korean positions. And the Olympics de-escalation has presented China and Russia with a case study of their "dual freeze" solution: a pause in U.S.-South Korean military exercises in exchange for a pause in North Korean testing during the games.
Even if Seoul makes progress with its neighbor, it is still caught between Washington and Pyongyang on the nuclear issue. The United States has made it clear that the North's nuclear program presents a clear threat to U.S. interests and that it must be ended. North Korea shows no signs of stopping and made this clear in the news conference after the Olympic talks. North Korean representatives vehemently denied South Korean reports that the subject of denuclearization had been broached, saying the nuclear program was solely the concern of the United States. This underscores the limits of South Korean diplomacy, which will be shaped by Pyongyang's push to complete its deterrent and by Washington's decision over whether it can live with such an eventuality.