An Olympic-sized 'window of opportunity' — or a North Korean ruse?

After months of rising tensions, warnings and threats from Washington and defiant tests of nuclear devices and missiles, North and South will march together at the Winter Olympics beginning Feb. 9.

Pyongyang offers to play nice at Winter Games in South Korea, but many are skeptical

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang on Wednesday. Junhee Lee, an analyst with the Korea Institute for Military Affairs, says: 'He wants to show the world that he is not as evil as the world thinks.' (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

The elderly woman rushing on the Seoul sidewalk pulls her collar against the cold wind. Ask her about the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and she shakes her head, disinterested. But ask her about North Korea's promise to attend and you have her attention.

"Of course, we should co-operate," Esther Han says, "but North Korea is always so full of lies."

Like many South Koreans, she is suspicious about motives and afraid that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will try to destroy the South.

But like others on these streets, barely 60 kilometres from the border with the North, she hopes for a peaceful breakthrough.

"We're Korean, we should get along," says Yung Ju, a businessman on his lunch break. "Let's focus on working together for the Olympics first and then maybe, we can talk about other topics. Nuclear threats."

Sarah Murray, left, Canadian coach of the South Korean women's Olympic hockey team speaks to reporters ahead of a deal reached Wednesday to combine North and South Korean players on one team. (Ha Sa-hun/Associated Press)

"It's a start," he says.

That start came with Wednesday's announcement, one that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago.

It comes after months of rising tensions, warnings and threats from Washington and defiant tests of nuclear devices and missiles designed to target the United States and endanger North Korea's neighbours.

North and South will walk into next month's Games Feb. 9 under a single flag, an outline of a unified Korean peninsula. They will field a combined team in women's hockey (only in that one event), and the North will fill Pyeongchang with its symbolic presence.

That kind of sports co-operation hasn't been seen in more than a decade, during several previous thaws in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. The two countries did march together in the Sydney and Torino Olympics, and their table tennis and youth soccer players have competed side by side at other competitions.

Foreign Affairs Miniater Chrystia Freeland greets U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during the meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver Jan. 16. Military options are apparently still being considered. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

This time, more than 500 North Korean envoys will cross the heavily fortified border. There will be athletes, journalists and high ranking officials, a team to demonstrate North Korean prowess in Taekwondo and 230 female cheerleaders to crowd the stands — individually picked for their good looks.

South Korean media have already dubbed these women the North's secret weapon in an expected "charm offensive" at the Games.

They will almost certainly overshadow the few North Korean athletes, no more than 10, according to observers in the South. So far, none have officially secured a slot, though figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik qualified for the Games with help from Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte. They failed to register before the Games deadline.

Another 150 North Koreans are set to participate in the Paralympics in March.

Protesters carry a banner while marching outside the site of a summit on North Korea in Vancouver on Jan. 15. Tillerson said the North Korean threat is still growing. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

None of this has been approved by the International Olympic Committee yet, though organizers have been keen to find a way to lessen tensions which threatened to overshadow the competition, scare away fans and even risk a military attack during the Games.

In a statement, the IOC says it has "taken note of a number of interesting proposals" for the North's participation and promises a decision this weekend.

The North's sudden openness has many sports officials and South Korean politicians smiling. But it has others wondering why Kim Jong-un has decided the join the Games so enthusiastically after angrily attacking international efforts to isolate North Korea through tough economic and political sanctions.

More magnanimous

"Kim Jong-un has reached a stage where he is seen as a villain by many countries, and he wants to change that horrible reputation," says Junhee Lee, an analyst with the Korea Institute for Military Affairs. "He wants to show the world that he is not as evil as the world thinks."

Lee says on one hand, Kim's success in developing a nuclear missile — unfinished but closer to reality than many experts predicted — has given him the confidence to be more magnanimous.

On the other, North Korea is grating from international sanctions that have "impacted immensely" on its economy, Lee says, especially recent caps on oil sales to Pyongyang. Easing these are a top priority.

Lee says it seems as if the North is willing to continue its co-operation with the South beyond the Olympics but he's cautious.

"We cannot trust them fully because of their past actions," he says. "We cannot lower our guard."

Change in atmosphere

Others say now the United States and the international community needs to recognize — and perhaps reward — the North's limited openness with diplomatic openness in return.

"The atmosphere has clearly changed," says John Delury, an American professor at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies.

He says this week's summit of foreign ministers in Vancouver was a "missed opportunity" to take advantage of two positive signs from Pyongyang: co-operation with South Korea over the Olympics and a relatively long pause in nuclear or missile tests.

Foreign Ministers from 20 countries involved in the Korean War in the 1950s met to find ways to increase pressure on North Korea, including even tougher sanctions and maritime interdiction of ships carrying banned goods and to and from the country.


At the end of the summit, co-hosted by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Tillerson hinted that the U.S. was still seriously considering a military option.

"We have to recognize that the threat is growing. And if North Korea does not choose the path of engagement, of discussion, negotiations, then they themselves will trigger an option," he said.

Delury disagrees. He says these latest moves by Pyongyang show "you can negotiate with the North Koreans."

"There is a little window of opportunity now to talk," he says. And he says it's up to diplomats like Tillerson, Freeland and others to figure out "how do you enlarge it" to include issues other than hockey and cheerleading squads.


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.