North Korean leader Kim Jong-un waxed positively lyrical in his New Year's address on Monday, saying the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are an opportunity to "demonstrate the dignity and stamina" of the Korean people and offer an opportunity to "melt the frozen North-South relations."
Kim added that both Koreas "could urgently meet" to discuss the prospect of sending a North Korean delegation. At the same time Kim boasted that he now has a "nuclear button" on his office desk and threatened the U.S. with fire and brimstone after "completing" his nuclear arsenal.
North Korea seems to have concluded that its strategy of boasting about its nuclear weapons development combined with dialogue overtures to the U.S. has not worked. Many experts doubt that it really has completed the development of a nuclear-tipped intercontinental missile. Kim needs at least one or two more nuclear tests and to prove that his ICBMs are capable of re-entering the atmosphere without burning up. Until then, Kim must make keep the U.S. at bay, which is why he is now trying to cozy up to the South Korean government.
North Korea did sent no athletes to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi simply because none qualified. A pair of North Korean figure skaters have qualified for the Pyeongchang Olympics, but if they win nothing it could be embarrassing. Yet it seems Kim is willing to risk that. As Kim expected, Cheong Wa Dae immediately "welcomed" the overture, desperate for the domestic political advantage that comes from any seeming rapprochement.
But North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons program, whether it participates in the Winter Olympics or not. It only wants to buy time. Many South Koreans know that, but others are ready to believe anything, and attempts to engage the North will only deepen the rift in South Korean society. That of course is exactly what Kim wants. Worse, Kim is trying to drive a wedge into the South Korea-U.S. alliance. Washington will never accept the resumption of inter-Korean dialogue if there is no prospect of the North abandoning its nuclear program.
Kim has so far simply ignored President Moon Jae-in's peace overtures. Why would he suddenly extend an olive branch now unless he has an ulterior motive? Of course Seoul has no need to ban North Korean athletes from competing in Pyeongchang or refuse to engage in dialogue. But it must make it absolutely clear that its alliance with the U.S. is unshakeable and that there is no future for inter-Korean relations unless the North scraps its nuclear weapons and missiles.