North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's declaration in his New Year's address that his country is prepared to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February suggests North Korea's intentions of using the major sporting event to end its isolation in the international community.
The South Korean government of President Moon Jae-in welcomed the announcement and proposed to hold governmental talks between the two Koreas. It was the first positive reaction from the North to the Moon administration's repeated calls for dialogue. President Moon's statement that North Korea positively responded to South Korea's proposal even suggests Seoul's sense of exaltation.
It is practically necessary to hold inter-Korean talks regarding participation in the Olympics. North Korea's decision to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics could spark speculation that Pyongyang may refrain from launching missiles and conducting nuclear tests at least until the end of the games.
However, it is hard to imagine that North Korea is purely attempting to bring excitement to the Olympics. Rather, Pyongyang's announcement should be viewed as its attempt to take advantage of circumstances surrounding the Moon government, which needs to make the games a success by all means.
Kim Jong Un said he wished for the success of the Olympics and emphasized that he desires to improve relations between South and North Korea. In contrast, the North Korean leader showed hostility toward the United States saying that Pyongyang is capable of launching nuclear attacks on the U.S. mainland.
Kim's remarks suggest that he is attempting to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, which are close allies, in an attempt to strengthen Pyongyang's hand in the international community. The secluded state has repeated similar tactics in the past.
Once inter-Korean talks get underway, North Korea could demand that U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises be called off as a precondition for participating in the Pyeongchang Olympics. Moreover, the North could demand Seoul lift its own sanctions against Pyongyang.
However, the Olympics are not something that should be used as a bargaining chip over North Korea's nuclear and missile development issues. The Moon government should clarify its position not to allow North Korea to use the Olympics for political purposes.
North Korea is now showing its readiness to comply with calls for inter-Korean talks apparently because embargoes on oil exports to Pyongyang have been stiffened under repeated U.N. sanctions. Even if North Korea can overcome such embargoes for now with its stockpile or by smuggling oil, it would be difficult for the country to have a clear outlook for securing enough oil from a long-term perspective.
The Moon administration should work out a strategy for taking advantage of such circumstances surrounding North Korea to find ways to resolve the North's nuclear and missile issues.
To that end, the Moon government needs to hold dialogue with North Korea while ascertaining Pyongyang's true intentions behind its recent reconciliatory moves and closely cooperating with Japan and the United States, which can help South Korea strengthen its position vis-a-vis North Korea.