“It’s pretty brilliant, and if it wasn’t Kim Jong Un and North Korea you’d have to admire what they’re doing, it’s pretty amazing,” said David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at the Walsh School for Foreign Service at Georgetown University.
“The North is masterful at getting something for nothing,” he told CNN. “They’re going to get recognition, legitimacy, resources, without giving anything up.”
From brinksmanship to one-upmanship
But this year’s parade was a subdued affair, a marked contrast to the shows North Korea put on in April 2017. While ICBMs were part of the parade, there was no new technology or missiles shown off to the audience at home or those watching from abroad.
“I think the military parade is a sideshow, I think they’re calculating the resolve of the Western powers and any chance to drive a wedge between the South Korean people is a worthy exercise,” said Joseph Siracusa, professor of human security and international diplomacy at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.
The North, he said, has nothing to lose with its Olympic gambit. It’s only task, he argues, is to look “normal.”
“If they come across as normal human beings, if they look normal and South Koreans treat them as normal, it’s a great diplomatic victory. It won’t solve a single problem though, as long as they continue with their nuclear weapons and ICBMs,” he told CNN.
The U.S. in the middle
Indeed the party looking most belligerent at the moment is the one Pyongyang is seeking to alienate from Seoul – the United States. Before arriving in the South to attend the Winter Games, US Vice President Mike Pence warned that Pyongyang’s charm offensive wasn’t fooling anyone.
On Thursday he visited the Yokota Air Base in Japan, whose troops likely be among the front line in a military confrontation with North Korea.
“As the Old Book says, ‘the soldier does not bear the sword in vain,’ and we will defeat any attack and meet any use of conventional or nuclear weapons with a response that is rapid, overwhelming and effective,” he said.
He also said there were more sanctions coming for Pyongyang, but didn’t outline what they would be.
For Seoul, the possibility of a dangerous dilemma
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who, during his presidential campaign, said he wanted to be the leader “who built a peaceful relationship” between the two Koreas, will face a quandary of catastrophic proportions should a member of the North Korean contingent decide to defect to the South.
“The position that would put Moon in: Am I going to send that person back? That’s what the Chinese do. Or do I allow them to stay and suffer the wrath of the North?” Maxwell from Georgetown University hypothesized. “North Korea would have an excuse to scuttle any agreement, withdraw from the Olympics, accuse the South of kidnapping.”
Siracusa says the South is already on high alert. It has thousands of security forces providing protection for the Games. “They’re worried about an act of terrorism. They’re worried about a drone. They’re preparing. They’re looking for something to happen,” he told CNN. The South has mobilized at least 60,000 policemen, military and other forces to maintain security during the Games. A spokesperson for the Games told CNN that number also included 600 firefighters and 2,400 private security officers.
Television footage of sporting events has been interspersed with scenes of buses pulling up and North Korea’s brightly-uniformed cheering squads and art troupes filing out. In between curling competitions the news that Moon was to meet with Kim Yo Jong took over the news cycle. Less than 24 hours later, the possibility of Moon being invited to visit her brother Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang itself captured people’s imagination.
As the Olympic program progresses, another competition plays out beside it in parallel. A charm offensive versus a propaganda drive, with nuclear ambitions at stake. What remains to be seen is whether any of the players will be ready for another round once the other Games are finished.