Is North Korea setting a trap?

If the organisers of the Winter Olympic Games awarded medals for cheerleading or propaganda, North Korea would have walked away with double gold.

The champion attention grabbers were the two hundred North Korean women who performed synchronised cheers throughout events which involved athletes from their country, playing alongside people from the host nation, South Korea.

At one point, the North Korean women raised masks to their faces which resembled Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of current dictator, Kim Jong-un. It was a moment which thrilled the press photographers, who sent their pictures around the world and set social media ablaze.

Afterwards, Kim Jong-Un, who did not attend, basked in the reflected glory. He used state media to unciously praise South Korea for its “very impressive” and “sincere” efforts in hosting the Olympics and spoke of a “warm climate of reconciliation and dialogue”.

Heading Due North

Only a few months ago, the same state media threatened to turn Seoul, Tokyo and Washington to dust. Yet South Korea’s President, Moon Jae-In – the son of North Korean refugees – longs to meet Kim Jong-Un face-to-face. At the Games, he was presented with an invitation to the North, which he will almost inevitably accept. Before agreeing to the trip, though, he is likely to press for a hiatus in its missile testing.

“The North Koreans used the Winter Olympic Games to try to shape an image of a country which is not isolated from the international community. The focus was on humanising and normalising their country’s image, even though it strives to be a nuclear state,” said Scott Snyder who directs the US-Korea Program at the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington.

“We see athletes and cheerleaders and people doing taekwondo and we think these are normal people. We don’t think about the barbarity and cruelty that many North Koreans experience at the hands of the North Korean leadership,” said Mr Snyder.

Abe’s Dilemma

The Olympics created a dilemma for another of Kim Jong-Un’s threatened targets, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Mr Abe wanted to promote Japan as a friendly nation and also to support Japanese athletes, especially as Tokyo will host the Olympics in 2020.

Yet he was wary of being drawn into the propaganda campaign or to be seen as “going soft” on North Korea. He also has issues with South Korea, which often stirs up bad memories over the period when it was occupied by Japan.

Symbolic meetings

At the start of the games, Mr Abe met South Korea’s President Moon. He also briefly met with the ceremonial head of state of North Korea, Kim Jong Nam, who is, according to Scott Snyder from the Council on Foreign Relations “a staunch defender of the North Korean regime.”

Mr Abe’s aides told reporters that during that short meeting he raised the issues of missile tests and abducted Japanese citizens.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono later outlined to the Kyodo News Agency the reasons why Mr Abe attended the Olympics.

He said: “Without being swayed by North Korea’s smile diplomacy, Japan will firmly coordinate with the US and South Korea towards the ultimate goal of denuclearisation the Korean Peninsula.”

Mr Kono noted that North Korea conducted a military parade on the eve of the Olympics. “Its intention regarding nuclear and missile development has not changed,” he warned.

Professor Stephen Nagy from Tokyo International Christian University says: “North Korea has not shown any shift in its security calculus of attempting to consolidate its nuclear strategic deterrent. In fact, we have witnessed an acceleration in the scope and breadth of its program under Kim Jong-un, especially since the Trump election.”

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