The North Korean guessing game

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It may be deliberate or it could just be a byproduct of its extraordinary isolation and paranoia, but North Korea is nothing if not an enigma.

There were sighs of relief around the world that the regime in Pyongyang was prepared to use the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea to reopen ruptured relations with Seoul and even to prepare to send teams to compete in the Games. It seemed that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was indeed, as he claimed, once more open to dialogue.

The hand of Beijing was suspected in this sudden change of mood. US President Trump’s uncompromising talk appears to have concentrated minds in the Chinese leadership. North Korea is now apparently experiencing its toughest-ever sanctions thanks to a sharp cut in China’s economic and material aid crossing the Yalu River’s Friendship Bridge on the border between the two countries.

Sport has played a key role in reconciliation - not least when President Richard Nixon sent a US table tennis team to Beijing triggering Sino-US reconciliation after Washington had isolated the Chinese Communist regime since 1949. There was every hope that 69 years later, the Winter Olympics could have a similar effect.

Now Pyongyang has suddenly withdrawn from a joint cultural event with the South that it was due to host next week. It had been billed as one of a series of North-South encounters that included artistic performances and a taekwondo demonstration ahead of the Winter Games. It was supposed to rebuild confidence and trust.

The Kim Jong-un regime sent a telegram to the government in Seoul saying it was cancelling because of insulting and biased coverage in its media. It appears that Pyongyang’s ire has been stoked by reports that it would hold a huge military parade on the eve of the Winter Games. It is hard to see how this could be such an explosive issue. True or not, it would be entirely characteristic of the regime to mount another such display of military might at such a key moment. It would be a reminder that the North holds a nuclear weapon in one hand even as it reaches out peaceably to a major international sporting event.

Therefore, the suspicion must be that Pyongyang wants to keep the watching world on edge. It is clinging to its enigmatic reputation. It sees its unpredictability as a potent political weapon. It has acquired an expertise in building up outside hopes that it is at last about to toe the line, only to dash them yet again with an act of unfriendliness. In the Trump White House, there will doubtless be those, not least the President himself, who regard this latest maneuver with barely concealed impatience. The reaction in the Oval Office is doubtless that it would not be inappropriate if the invitation for North Korea to take part in the South Korean Winter Games were withdrawn.

This is not, however, the way the International Olympic Committee works and it is certainly not in line with the South Korean government’s ever-patient diplomacy with its threatening neighbor. The reaction from Seoul has been that the North’s withdrawal from this pre-Games event is “regrettable”.

Enigmatic North Korea may generate many uncertainties but the devastating threat from this militaristic nuclear-armed state cannot for one minute be doubted.


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