North Korea is already making demands the South simply cannot fulfill.
The South Korean media coverage over the evolving talks with North Korea is extraordinary. The hype, especially on TV, has been tremendous. Perhaps it is just because South Koreans loathe Donald Trump so much, that they are thrilled to find a potential off-ramp from his reckless belligerence last year. Perhaps the South Korean left actually believes the North will really deal. (The conservative press most certainly does not; it keeps running stories like this.) Maybe the government of liberal President Moon Jae-in is amping this up to push back on the Americans taking over the North Korea issue and running it toward a major conflict. Whatever the case, expectations are high.
But since this is North Korea we are talking about—high expectations will almost certainly be dashed. The talks have scarcely commenced, and North Korea is already making demands the South simply cannot fulfill, and behaving predictably as a spoiler:
1 – What Olympic spirit of peace and reconciliation would be complete without a massive, fascistic military parade to kick things off?
The day before the Olympics opens, it appears North Korea will hold a gigantic, 50,000 person-strong military parade through Pyongyang. Does it even need to be said that this is an obvious act of intimidation? The animating political spirit behind the Olympics has always been to rise above national and ideological differences to enjoy a brief moment of shared humanity. This would indeed be a nice segue into negotiations on the peninsula, as the South Korean left has argued for the last month. And the North Korean response is exactly as unhelpful and belligerent as you would expect.
2 – North Korea cancelled a pre-Olympic cultural event before things even got started.
One of the great concerns hawks have long had about negotiating with North Korea is its insistence that South Korea conform to its illiberalism. (‘When you dance with the devil, the devil don’t change; the devil changes you.’) And North Korea has done this yet again, even before this spirit of Olympic comity has even gotten off the ground. Just three weeks after it proposed talks and the Olympics, Pyongyang canceled a joint cultural event at the Mount Diamond resort, because it found the South Korea press hostile and insulting, which was entirely predictable.
The obvious implication is that the South should somehow muzzle the conservative press. The South has already agreed to try to prevent any possible Northern defections during the Olympic games. These sorts of Northern demands put Seoul in an awkward position of considering ‘deliberalizing’ to accommodate Northern sensibilities and keep negotiations on track. This would obviously spark outrage at home and abroad. Conservatives everywhere would howl. North Korea knew this would be a problem. It was previously, during the Sunshine Policy, North-South engagement period as well. Yet Pyongyang just does not care.
3 – North Korea wants defectors in the South returned.
This is another example of an impossible demand from the North which could easily derail the whole Olympic reconciliation project if maintained. As with clamping down on the conservative press, Pyongyang knows Seoul cannot return defectors. South Korea has had a democratic government for forty years; a press muzzling at the behest of an orwellian tyranny would spark a constitutional row. Similarly, it is illegal for South Korean administrations to return Northern defectors. If they can make it to South Korea, North Koreans are automatically granted citizenship. And statute prevents them from being returned to prevent precisely this current scenario—treating people as chits to be traded away in negotiation.
Once again, the North knows all this but has pushed it anyway, leading to obvious questions of just how serious it is about the talks it asked for a month ago. Why propose them and then petulantly cancel Mount Diamond over completely predictable criticism, launch a huge military parade just 100 miles from a global event celebrating our common humanity, and make predictably impossible demands? What was the point of even soliciting talks if Pyongyang intended to behave this way?
4 – The South must naturally pay for everything, and even violate sanctions.
If North Korean illiberalism was not enough, it made sure to fleece South Korea at every turn. Naturally the South must pay the cost of North Korea’s participation in the Olympics. Seoul would also have paid for that Mount Diamond event and it considered giving North Korea diesel fuel as well. This last demand raised the possibility that South Korea might incidentally violate UN sanctions against the North, which the South Korean left, regrettably, tends to treat as disposable and nonbinding if they stand in the way of negotiations. The sums are small enough, of course, that South Korea can easily pay them. The issue, instead, is North Korea demanding that South Korea bend the rules just for it to agree to talk. This is important: these are not concessions in exchange for Northern counter concessions. These are concessions just to get the North to show up at a sporting event or sit in a conference room for an afternoon. South Korea would be paying for process (talks), not substance (the negotiated outcome of talks).
In short, the inter-Korean dialogue is going just about as you would expect. The North disarmingly proposed talks in Kim Jong-un’s New Years’ address. The South Korean left, center, and media got carried away, especially at the possibility of implicit rebuking Trump’s bluster by agreeing. And now the North is making preposterous demands the South will not meet, before the real debates even get started. It will surprise no one if the status quo ante returns after the Olympics.