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Will Kim Jong-un attend Tokyo Olympics?

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been more forthcoming about overseas trips than Kim Jong-il, his predecessor and father. The international community is watching whether the North Korean leader will visit a foreign country for the Olympics next year. Yonhap
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been more forthcoming about overseas trips than Kim Jong-il, his predecessor and father. The international community is watching whether the North Korean leader will visit a foreign country for the Olympics next year. Yonhap

By Do Je-hae

President Moon Jae-in and his ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) are determined not to miss out on the chance for engaging North Korea and promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula during the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games.

During the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, a high-level delegation led by the North Korean leader's sister Kim Yo-jong visited PyeongChang, paving the way for the first summit between President Moon and Kim Jong-un on April 27, 2018. That was first of three Moon-Kim summits that year, culminating in the one in Pyongyang in September. Therefore, Olympic diplomacy has a special meaning for Moon, who is looking increasingly out of options for a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations with limited time left in his five-year presidency which ends in May 2022. Moon's concerns about backtracking on his peace process for the Korean Peninsula are aggravated by the election of Joe Biden, the vice president during the Obama administration which put the focus on sanctions rather than diplomacy with North Korea.

The South Korean leader's sense of urgency for engineering an Olympic-related breakthrough in inter-Korean relations is seen in his choice for Korean ambassador to Switzerland, Roh Tae-gang. A former vice minister at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Roh has specialized in sports policy and has experience dealing with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) during his long career at the ministry.

President Moon Jae-in, left, and new Korean Ambassador to Switzerland Roh Tae-gang, a former top sports official with long ties to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), greet each other during a ceremony at Cheong Wa Dae, Nov. 10. Roh has been tasked as the nation's top envoy to the host country of the IOC with getting IOC support for Olympic diplomacy for promoting peace between the two Koreas. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in, left, and new Korean Ambassador to Switzerland Roh Tae-gang, a former top sports official with long ties to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), greet each other during a ceremony at Cheong Wa Dae, Nov. 10. Roh has been tasked as the nation's top envoy to the host country of the IOC with getting IOC support for Olympic diplomacy for promoting peace between the two Koreas. Yonhap

"The President asked Ambassador Roh, based on his connections with the IOC, to make efforts to ensure that the Olympics can serve as an occasion for world peace by engaging in discussions for joint entry of the two Koreas during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics and the co-hosting by the two Koreas of the 2032 Olympics," a presidential spokesperson told reporters after a ceremony for the new ambassadors at Cheong Wa Dae, Nov. 10. IOC headquarters are located in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Tokyo Olympics was also among the main topics during a recent visit to Japan by Rep. Kim Jin-pyo of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK). Kim, who leads the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union, has said that the Japanese side is willing to invite the North Korean leader to the Olympics should Kim show a favorable reaction to participating. Rep. Kim was the latest high-level figure from South Korea to meet with new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Nov. 13 in Tokyo, after National Intelligence Service chief Park Jie-won met Suga on Nov. 10.

Rep. Kim Jin-pyo of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and chairman of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union speaks at a press conference at a hotel in Tokyo, Nov. 14. Yonhap
Rep. Kim Jin-pyo of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and chairman of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union speaks at a press conference at a hotel in Tokyo, Nov. 14. Yonhap

During the Budget Committee of the House of Councillors on Nov. 5, Suga said that the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for July 2021, would be a good opportunity to meet with Kim Jong-un. Suga has said he is ready to meet with the North Korean leader without any conditions, particularly to discuss the highly emotional question of Japanese citizens kidnapped in North Korea.

Quest for Olympic diplomacy

Olympic diplomacy may sound sensible in theory, but it should be noted that the host country has not openly declared anything about making the Tokyo games the kind of "peace Olympics" that Moon has in mind, according to some experts.

"Some opinion leaders in Japan may not be interested in the Tokyo Olympics being a venue for diplomacy with North Korea because they want the games to symbolize recovery from environmental, nuclear and public health disasters," Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told The Korea Times. "However, welcoming North Korea could be an effective hedge against missile tests and cyberattacks during the Olympics, and could produce progress on the abduction issue."

Some experts say the Olympics can provide valuable momentum for drawing North Korea back to the negotiation table. "The Tokyo Olympics, like the PyeongChang Winter Olympics of 2018, might conceivably offer another opportunity for drawing the North into dialogue if not a deal on its nuclear program," Donald Kirk, an author on Korean Peninsula issues, told The Korea Times. "It would be great if North Korea were to participate in the Tokyo Olympics, giving an opportunity for meetings between Japanese and North Koreans and also between South and North Koreans."

But strong doubts remain about whether Kim, despite his record of overseas visits, will travel to a foreign country for the Olympics. North Korea sent high-level representatives to the 2008 Beijing and 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, but a North Korean leader has never attended the largest sports event in the world.

To raise the possibility of Kim's visit to Tokyo for the Olympics, analysts underline the need for South Korea and Japan to start relevant discussions. "South Korea and Japan should begin talking now about how to work together on dealing with the North Koreans at the Olympics, putting aside long-running issues between Japan and South Korea. Moon should encourage such talks while also pressing for the opportunity for South and North Koreans to resume contacts as they did in PyeongChang," Kirk said.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, Nov. 16, after talks with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. They reaffirmed the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics, which have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in July 2021. Reuters-Yonhap
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, Nov. 16, after talks with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. They reaffirmed the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics, which have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in July 2021. Reuters-Yonhap

The problem for Seoul is that current climate in bilateral relations is not conducive to discussing Olympic cooperation with Tokyo. Suga has refused to come to Seoul to attend the Korea-Japan-China summit planned for December without any progress on the wartime forced labor issue, the biggest impediment in bilateral relations.

The need for cooperation on the Tokyo Olympics underlines the need for South Korea and Japan to work on a resolution to the history row, according to experts. "For Tokyo to coordinate with Seoul on such a diplomatic gambit, relations over history need to improve. This is possible if South Korea establishes a domestic compensation fund for wartime laborers before liquidation of Japanese corporate assets, retaliation from Suga, and pressure from a Biden administration for allies to reconcile," Easley said.

Other experts say it is unrealistic to place too much hope on the Tokyo Games to achieve meaningful outcomes for progress in Moon's peace process on the Korean Peninsula.

"If there is a grand gesture such as the two Koreas walking together in the opening ceremony or, even better, Kim with Suga and perhaps other leaders such as Moon and Biden, then the Olympics could make a difference. Otherwise, however, I don't think that the Tokyo Olympics will make such a big difference," Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea Chair, Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, told The Korea Times.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been more forthcoming about overseas trips than Kim Jong-il, his predecessor and father. The international community is watching whether the North Korean leader will visit a foreign country for the Olympics next year. Yonhap
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been more forthcoming about overseas trips than Kim Jong-il, his predecessor and father. The international community is watching whether the North Korean leader will visit a foreign country for the Olympics next year. Yonhap

By Do Je-hae

President Moon Jae-in and his ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) are determined not to miss out on the chance for engaging North Korea and promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula during the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games.

During the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, a high-level delegation led by the North Korean leader's sister Kim Yo-jong visited PyeongChang, paving the way for the first summit between President Moon and Kim Jong-un on April 27, 2018. That was first of three Moon-Kim summits that year, culminating in the one in Pyongyang in September. Therefore, Olympic diplomacy has a special meaning for Moon, who is looking increasingly out of options for a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations with limited time left in his five-year presidency which ends in May 2022. Moon's concerns about backtracking on his peace process for the Korean Peninsula are aggravated by the election of Joe Biden, the vice president during the Obama administration which put the focus on sanctions rather than diplomacy with North Korea.

The South Korean leader's sense of urgency for engineering an Olympic-related breakthrough in inter-Korean relations is seen in his choice for Korean ambassador to Switzerland, Roh Tae-gang. A former vice minister at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Roh has specialized in sports policy and has experience dealing with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) during his long career at the ministry.

President Moon Jae-in, left, and new Korean Ambassador to Switzerland Roh Tae-gang, a former top sports official with long ties to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), greet each other during a ceremony at Cheong Wa Dae, Nov. 10. Roh has been tasked as the nation's top envoy to the host country of the IOC with getting IOC support for Olympic diplomacy for promoting peace between the two Koreas. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in, left, and new Korean Ambassador to Switzerland Roh Tae-gang, a former top sports official with long ties to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), greet each other during a ceremony at Cheong Wa Dae, Nov. 10. Roh has been tasked as the nation's top envoy to the host country of the IOC with getting IOC support for Olympic diplomacy for promoting peace between the two Koreas. Yonhap

"The President asked Ambassador Roh, based on his connections with the IOC, to make efforts to ensure that the Olympics can serve as an occasion for world peace by engaging in discussions for joint entry of the two Koreas during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics and the co-hosting by the two Koreas of the 2032 Olympics," a presidential spokesperson told reporters after a ceremony for the new ambassadors at Cheong Wa Dae, Nov. 10. IOC headquarters are located in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Tokyo Olympics was also among the main topics during a recent visit to Japan by Rep. Kim Jin-pyo of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK). Kim, who leads the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union, has said that the Japanese side is willing to invite the North Korean leader to the Olympics should Kim show a favorable reaction to participating. Rep. Kim was the latest high-level figure from South Korea to meet with new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Nov. 13 in Tokyo, after National Intelligence Service chief Park Jie-won met Suga on Nov. 10.

Rep. Kim Jin-pyo of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and chairman of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union speaks at a press conference at a hotel in Tokyo, Nov. 14. Yonhap
Rep. Kim Jin-pyo of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and chairman of the Korea-Japan Parliamentarians' Union speaks at a press conference at a hotel in Tokyo, Nov. 14. Yonhap

During the Budget Committee of the House of Councillors on Nov. 5, Suga said that the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled for July 2021, would be a good opportunity to meet with Kim Jong-un. Suga has said he is ready to meet with the North Korean leader without any conditions, particularly to discuss the highly emotional question of Japanese citizens kidnapped in North Korea.

Quest for Olympic diplomacy

Olympic diplomacy may sound sensible in theory, but it should be noted that the host country has not openly declared anything about making the Tokyo games the kind of "peace Olympics" that Moon has in mind, according to some experts.

"Some opinion leaders in Japan may not be interested in the Tokyo Olympics being a venue for diplomacy with North Korea because they want the games to symbolize recovery from environmental, nuclear and public health disasters," Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, told The Korea Times. "However, welcoming North Korea could be an effective hedge against missile tests and cyberattacks during the Olympics, and could produce progress on the abduction issue."

Some experts say the Olympics can provide valuable momentum for drawing North Korea back to the negotiation table. "The Tokyo Olympics, like the PyeongChang Winter Olympics of 2018, might conceivably offer another opportunity for drawing the North into dialogue if not a deal on its nuclear program," Donald Kirk, an author on Korean Peninsula issues, told The Korea Times. "It would be great if North Korea were to participate in the Tokyo Olympics, giving an opportunity for meetings between Japanese and North Koreans and also between South and North Koreans."

But strong doubts remain about whether Kim, despite his record of overseas visits, will travel to a foreign country for the Olympics. North Korea sent high-level representatives to the 2008 Beijing and 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, but a North Korean leader has never attended the largest sports event in the world.

To raise the possibility of Kim's visit to Tokyo for the Olympics, analysts underline the need for South Korea and Japan to start relevant discussions. "South Korea and Japan should begin talking now about how to work together on dealing with the North Koreans at the Olympics, putting aside long-running issues between Japan and South Korea. Moon should encourage such talks while also pressing for the opportunity for South and North Koreans to resume contacts as they did in PyeongChang," Kirk said.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, Nov. 16, after talks with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. They reaffirmed the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics, which have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in July 2021. Reuters-Yonhap
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, Nov. 16, after talks with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. They reaffirmed the hosting of the Tokyo Olympics, which have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in July 2021. Reuters-Yonhap

The problem for Seoul is that current climate in bilateral relations is not conducive to discussing Olympic cooperation with Tokyo. Suga has refused to come to Seoul to attend the Korea-Japan-China summit planned for December without any progress on the wartime forced labor issue, the biggest impediment in bilateral relations.

The need for cooperation on the Tokyo Olympics underlines the need for South Korea and Japan to work on a resolution to the history row, according to experts. "For Tokyo to coordinate with Seoul on such a diplomatic gambit, relations over history need to improve. This is possible if South Korea establishes a domestic compensation fund for wartime laborers before liquidation of Japanese corporate assets, retaliation from Suga, and pressure from a Biden administration for allies to reconcile," Easley said.

Other experts say it is unrealistic to place too much hope on the Tokyo Games to achieve meaningful outcomes for progress in Moon's peace process on the Korean Peninsula.

"If there is a grand gesture such as the two Koreas walking together in the opening ceremony or, even better, Kim with Suga and perhaps other leaders such as Moon and Biden, then the Olympics could make a difference. Otherwise, however, I don't think that the Tokyo Olympics will make such a big difference," Ramon Pacheco Pardo, KF-VUB Korea Chair, Institute for European Studies, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, told The Korea Times.
Do Je-hae jhdo@koreatimes.co.kr

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