Kim's Smiling Sister Exploits Trump-Moon Divide

Updated on
  • Charm offensive aimed at undermining sanctions, war talk
  • Pence says there’s ‘no daylight’ between U.S. and South Korea
Bloomberg’s Peter Pae reports on Kim Yo Jong shaking hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un deployed a new weapon at the Olympics to fight back against the Trump administration’s sanctions and threats of a preemptive strike against his nuclear program: His sister.

Kim Yo Jong shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, cheered enthusiastically for a unified Korean team, and displayed a sense of humor in weekend meetings. She also delivered a letter inviting Moon to a summit with her brother in Pyongyang, and asked him to play a “leading role” in reuniting the two Koreas after nearly seven decades.

“I never expected to come here on such short notice to be honest, and I thought it would be strange and different but it’s not,” Kim Yo Jong said at a dinner Sunday night before heading home. “There are many things similar and the same. I hope we can quickly become one and meet these good people again in Pyongyang.”

The warm words were aimed at further exploiting divisions between the U.S. and South Korea, which differ on the best way to rid North Korea of nuclear weapons. Her visit amounted to a charm offensive designed to counter the U.S. narrative that Kim Jong Un is a madman who tortures his own people and would blow up Los Angeles or New York City if he didn’t get his way.

North Korea’s participation in the Olympics has already allowed Kim Jong Un to undermine President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign, with some sanctions suspended temporarily until the event ends. In pushing for a summit with Moon, Kim is seeking to consolidate those gains while maintaining his nuclear arsenal to deter a U.S. invasion.

The question now is whether the U.S. and South Korea can stay united in keeping up the pressure on North Korea just as sanctions limiting export revenue and curbing fuel imports start to bite. While Trump’s advisers have threatened military action to prevent Kim from gaining the ability to strike the U.S. homeland with a nuclear weapon, Moon is seeking to prevent a war that could devastate South Korea and the region.

Kim’s proposal for a summit was “a brilliant diplomatic maneuver,” said Andrei Lankov, a historian at Kookmin University in Seoul who once studied in Pyongyang. Moon would irritate Trump if he accepts the invitation, while declining would make the U.S. and South Korea appear “unreasonably bellicose,” he said.

How North Korea Managed to Crash the Olympics Party

“The proposal, as well as North Korea’s presence at the Games, sends a signal that the North Koreans are ready to talk,” Lankov said. “And this signal helps the opponents of a military operation in Washington and elsewhere.”

Signs of discord in the U.S.-South Korea alliance were evident immediately after the announcement. Moon’s office initially provided conflicting accounts of whether he accepted the invitation, with a Blue House spokesperson later clarifying that pre-conditions first needed to be met.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence didn’t discuss the invitation with Moon Saturday while they watched a speed-skating event, a senior White House official said. Speaking to reporters later, Pence reiterated that there was “no daylight” between the U.S., South Korea and Japan in pushing to isolate North Korea until Kim abandons his nuclear program.

Pence Talks

Later on, Pence told the Washington Post that the U.S. is ready to engage in talks about North Korea’s nuclear program even as it maintains pressure on Kim’s regime. In the interview, he said Moon assured him that the North Koreans wouldn’t get economic or diplomatic benefits for just talking — only for taking concrete steps toward denuclearization.

Moon came to power promising a softer approach to Pyongyang and has repeatedly sought a summit with Kim Jong Un. Moon initially opposed U.S. plans to deploy a missile shield in South Korea, and last year vowed to prevent war at all costs after Trump threatened “fire and fury” against North Korea.

Moon faces the risk of a backlash at home if he goes too far. His approval ratings, while still high at 63 percent, fell after he pushed for a unified women’s ice hockey team for the two Koreas. Conservative groups have protested the appearance of North Korean athletes at the Games in Pyeongchang with vulgar signs.

‘Wild Dream’

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Monday that the dialogue would be led by the two Koreas with cooperation and support from international partners. South Korea “will faithfully implement the international sanctions on North Korea, while also adhering to the principle of resolution through peaceful means,” it said.

North Korea has shown no signs it’s willing to discuss denuclearization. Its negotiators protested last month when South Koreans raised the issue during talks over the Olympics, a line North Korea’s state-run media has reiterated. Last week, a commentary published by the Korean Central News Agency called denuclearization “a wild dream that can never come true.”

Moon won’t have much space to negotiate with North Korea without backing from the U.S., said Christopher Green, senior adviser on the Korean peninsula at the International Crisis Group in Amsterdam.

“His goal is to do enough on the inter-Korean front to get the United States and North Korea to jaw-jaw,” Green said. “The real strategic games have only just begun.”

— With assistance by Sohee Kim, and Toluse Olorunnipa

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