By The Manila Times Editorial Board
Certainly, the reduced tension between the warring Koreas is a welcome development and not just for those countries that are within firing distance of Kim Jong-un's missiles. But it may be too early to declare a victory for sports diplomacy, as some might wish for. Good optics should not be a substitute for real progress, especially when it comes to peace and stability in the region.
Ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics, North and South Korean officials are talking for the first time in two years. North Korean athletes will presumably participate in the games and may even march with their fellow Korean Olympians from south of the 38th parallel in the opening ceremonies.
This is a major victory for President Moon Jae-in of South Korea. The talks guard against any nuclear tests during the globally televised events. Missile firings or similar provocations would spook the Olympians, their teams and others visiting Pyeongchang. Countries compete and spend resources to host the Olympics, largely in hopes of cashing in on the promotions and political dividends. And so such as actions by North Korea will diminish the South's gains.
North Korea, for its part, appears to be the bigger winner, even with economic sanctions still in place. For one, denuclearization is off the North-South dialogue agenda. We hope that this will be taken up later, despite the North's adamant opposition to that. The North has also won a respite from the joint US-South Korea military exercises, which Pyongyang has been demanding. In reality, all that North Korea had to do to gain access to the Winter Olympics – and the global arena – was to behave somehow for a short time. We hope that the rewards of this good behavior will encourage Mr. Kim to continue along the path to peace.
Keeping the Peace
We also hope that the Winter Olympics will show North Korea that it has more to gain from opening up to the world, rather than from threatening to nuke it. We hope that talks will continue well after the Olympics next month, as that would that ensure continued growth and progress currently being enjoyed in Asia.
By adhering to the sanctions, South Korea will feel encouraged, we hope, to continue engaging North Korea without sacrificing the international position that opposes nuclear proliferation and war. Obviously, South Korea will be the main beneficiary of peace, but others will have a share in the gains, beginning with the two leading economies, China and Japan. And peace in the peninsula will fuel even faster growth in Southeast Asia.
For now, cautious optimism is in order. Just days before North Korea announced its willingness to talk, it was subverting international sanctions. In December, for instance, there were several news reports of North Korean vessels receiving oil shipments while out at sea. South Korea had even seized a Hong Kong-flagged vessel for performing this potentially dangerous maneuver. Plus, Russian tankers had reportedly made at least three ship-to-ship transfers in the latter part of 2017.
These deliveries not only violate UN sanctions, but they also pose grave threats to the environment and livelihoods. The open sea can be perilous and cause a spillage that cost billions of dollars in environmental damage and threaten commercial fishing.
We certainly hope that those countries propping up the North Korean regime will come to appreciate that Pyongyang can be lured to the negotiating table, as we are seeing now. No country will benefit from conflict or even resumption of tense relations between North Korea and the South and its allies. Many more countries, including those in Southeast Asia, will enjoy prosperity from peace and stability in the Korean peninsula.
It would be a setback to resume the belligerent talks and threats of war after the Winter Games close. For the world to enjoy the fruits of sports diplomacy, leaders will need to keep the flames of peace burning.