Seeing Kim Yong Nam in Pyeongchang is a bit like seeing a ghost. The nonagenarian figurehead of the North Korean regime and unlikely survivor of many a political purge, the unsmiling Kim has emerged as the public face of North Korea’s charm offensive.
Heading a delegation of functionaries at the opening of the Olympic Games, Kim met with South Korean President Moon Jae In, and the North Korean delegation extended an invitation for Moon to visit Pyongyang — as fortuitous an opportunity for dialogue as one might hope for under the circumstances.
It is not the first dialogue between the two Koreas. But past efforts failed to bring long-term stability to the Korean Peninsula, and the deepening of the North Korean nuclear crisis brought timid contacts to an abrupt end. North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics, then, is an opportunity to restart the inter-Korean dialogue. And while the chances for a genuine breakthrough are small, the opportunity is too important, and too rare, to miss.
Unlike Moon, a newbie to Olympic dialogues, Kim has a wealth of experience under his belt. As North Korea’s foreign minister, he was directly involved in Pyongyang’s efforts to ruin the last South Korean Olympics, in 1988.
In many ways, the world in which those games took place was very different. The wall stood tall in Berlin, dividing the parallel universes of socialism and capitalism. There was a thaw in Soviet-American relations, but the Cold War’s swift end and the Soviet collapse hardly seemed inevitable.
South Korea, long vilified in Moscow and Beijing as a Western “puppet state”, had no diplomatic relations, and very little contact, with either.
North Korea, not yet the pariah state that it would soon become, enjoyed fairly close alliances with a host of socialist countries, to which it billed itself as the “real” Korea.
But in other ways, that world was remarkably similar to ours. For one thing, North Korea was deeply insecure. Fearful of Seoul’s growing economic clout, the North Korean leadership, namely Kim Jong Un’s grandfather Kim Il Sung and his foreign policy sidekick, Kim Yong Nam, drummed up tensions and fed nightmare scenarios of an imminent war to their sceptical allies in an attempt to secure their political and economic support.
This was the tale that Kim Yong Nam spun to his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform-minded foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, when the latter turned up in Pyongyang in January 1986. The Korean Peninsula, Kim told Shevardnadze, “is the most explosive place on the planet. ... South Korea is the nuclear arsenal of the United States. If a war starts here, it will inevitably become a world war.”
Kim then explained how the Seoul Olympics — then still more than two years away — were “the brainchild of American imperialism”. The Americans, he said, wanted to strengthen the “wobbly regime” of Chun Doo Hwan, who was then President of South Korea.
The two Koreas were at the time talking in Lausanne, Switzerland, about co-hosting the Olympics. Pyongyang first put forward the idea of sharing the Games in 1985. The South Koreans reluctantly came to the table, worried that failure to negotiate, and any potential fallout, could force the International Olympic Committee to move the Games to a less problematic country.
Yet the South was obviously stalling. Chun had no intention of actually sharing the Games. He thought all the talk of a potential conflagration in Korea was pure bluff, part of Kim Il Sung’s effort to scare the world away from Korea. “President Kim Il Sung knows that he cannot attack us,” Chun privately told the head of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch, “and I know it, and he knows that I know it.”
The charade in Lausanne was important, though, because it allowed the South Koreans to blame the North for intransigence and curry favour with Moscow and Beijing. The North Koreans, too, had the chance to show their allies that they were quite willing to negotiate, and that the South was the more unreasonable of the two. For the North Koreans, the hope was then to get the Russians and the Chinese to boycott the Games. This was what Kim Yong Nam wanted of Shevardnadze, but the Soviet foreign minister demurred. Soviet leaders had decided privately that, whatever Pyongyang’s whims, the USSR, which had boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, would return to the Summer Games.
When it became clear that the Soviets, the Chinese and most other socialist countries would join the Seoul Olympics, the North Koreans switched tracks to limiting the damage. In May 1988, Kim Yong Nam went to Moscow to plead with Gorbachev that the Games not lead to any further rapprochement between the Soviet Union and South Korea. Gorbachev responded with disingenuous surprise: “Do you really doubt our support?”
Kim replied with a lie: “No. Of course, we don’t doubt it.”
Gorbachev was lying, too. The Games served as a cover for secret political contacts between the Russians and the South Koreans. The new South Korean President, Roh Tae Woo, dangled an economic carrot, promising credits in return for diplomatic relations. Aware of growing economic exchange between Seoul and the socialist bloc, the North Koreans tried to shame their allies by invoking principles of Communist solidarity. “This is nothing but betrayal of the interests and ideals of socialism, crawling into the tiger’s mouth, capitulation before the power of the capital,” Kim Yong Nam told Shevardnadze in December 1988.
Kim’s protestation fell on deaf ears. Gorbachev, in dire need of foreign cash to prop up the faltering Soviet economy, agreed to meet Roh in San Francisco in June 1990. The two countries then moved rapidly to normalise relations.
When Shevardnadze flew to Pyongyang in 1990 to explain the about-face, the “Great Leader” refused to see him. Instead, he had Kim Yong Nam read out a litany of complaints. The gist of Kim’s presentation was that North Korea would not suffer the fate of East Germany. “The situation in Korea will not turn out the way the USA and South Korea want it, and it will not develop the way you expect.”
Now that the Soviets were in effect abandoning North Korea to its fate, Kim continued, Pyongyang had no other choice but to pursue the nuclear deterrent.
The Seoul Games were as much about politics as about sport. South Korea won big time by reaching out to the socialist bloc. This was all part of Roh’s carefully crafted Nordpolitik, or Northern Policy, a strategy of building bridges to the Communist world, especially to Moscow and Beijing. This, Roh hoped, would give Seoul the leverage to deal with North Korea.
He was wrong on the last point. Roh’s version of Nordpolitik helped Pyongyang down the slippery slope of isolation and defiance. In retrospect, then, the 1988 Games were a moment of lost opportunity for dialogue between the North and the South.
The prevailing expectation around the world was that North Korea would not survive the end of the Cold War. Thirty years and six nuclear tests later, the macabre regime is still in place. As Kim Yong Nam shows, even the faces have not changed all that much.
Kim, as pragmatic and cynical as the North Korean regime itself, is an unlikely messenger for improved North-South relations. He spent his lifetime seeking to undermine South Korea. But 30 years after he tried to ruin the Games in Seoul, just his presence in Pyeongchang is an indication of a very different political environment in North Korea. For most intents and purposes, Pyongyang no longer has allies. Instead, it has the Bomb. It is tottering on the brink of war that probably will not become a world war but will certainly destroy North Korea.
Faced with these daunting realities, Kim and his boss in Pyongyang have the opportunity to walk away from the brink. South Korea, much more confident and generous than it was in 1988, can now afford the luxury of letting them try.
• Sergey Radchenko is professor of international politics at Cardiff University