The Current

North Korea's 'real motives': Olympic unity may mask hostile plan, experts warn

North Korea's agenda has only ever been the conquest and control of the whole peninsula, a historian warns.
The cult of personality that surrounds North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is the same as surrounded his grandfather, says journalist Susan Chira. (Korean Central News Agency/Reuters)

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Whose team is North Korea really on?

When PyeongChang hosts the Winter Olympics next month, athletes from both North and South Korea will be united under the same flag.

The move is tantalising for Koreans who dream of peace and unification, but experts have warned of the North's motives, saying the emotion of the moment could mask more sinister motives.

"I do think we have to be hard-headed and cautious," says Susan Chira, a senior correspondent for The New York Times.

"This is a moment that will have great emotional resonance for North and South Koreans," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"Dreams of unification are very potent."

"But I think we need to be very careful not to over-interpret. North Korea is aggressively stepping up its nuclear program because it serves its interest and I would be very shocked if the feel-good nature of this deters it from that path."

North and South Korean athletes will march under a unification flag at the Olympics. (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)

This isn't the first time tensions on the peninsula have played out against an Olympic backdrop.

When South Korea was awarded the 1988 Olympics, it was seen as a nation-building exercise that brought the country out of the shadow of the Korean War and onto the world stage.

"North Korea had its nose firmly out of joint," she says.

There were attempts to include the North, including hosting some of the events — the regime rejected this as the events weren't high-profile enough.

When those talks broke down, with Chira describing a pattern of "terrorism and hostility" that followed.

The culmination was the bombing of KAL858 in 1987, in which North Korean agents planted an explosive device that killed 115 people on a flight to Seoul.

Ministers from both Koreas shake hands after a meeting in Panmunjom, in the demilitarized zone at the border, on Jan. 17, 2018. (South Korea Unification Ministry via AP)

The idea, Chira says, was to create instability in South Korea and frighten people away from the Games.

Despite the aggressive tactics, Washington and Seoul responded with diplomacy, making overtures to the North in an attempt to reduce tensions.

She says that bad behaviour is North Korea's "only bargaining chip."

"All it's got right now is the nuclear program, the threat of that, to make the world pay attention," she tells Tremonti. "It doesn't have a great economy... it's a very isolated place, the only ally it really has is China, to some degree."

"I think North Korea has used these threats — then terrorism, now nuclear annihilation — as a way to try to extract concessions from the world."

Journalist and historian Bradley K. Martin agrees with Chira that the world should be cautious.

"North Korea never falters from its basic strategy," he tells Tremonti.

"Which is to persuade the United States to get its troops out, or persuade the South Koreans to push our troops out and then reunite either peacefully or forcefully — so that North Korea will control the southern part of the country. That is their long-term strategy."

Maps printed on glass in Panmunjom, depicting the surrounding demilitarized zone. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)

The Olympics decision, he says, is just another move to break down the alliance between the South and the U.S.

Their approach, he says, is multi-pronged. North Korea uses the dream of reunification to draw the South in, while simultaneously using the nuclear threat to keep the U.S. at bay — and hopefully drive it out completely.

"They hope that the United States will say: 'Wait a minute, we can't risk our own territory to protect South Korea, so we'd better start thinking of other ways'," he says.

Martin says that the country's goals haven't changed since he first went there in 1979, when a foreign policy chief sat him down for five hours and explained why the U.S. should pull out.

"I do think we have a lot to worry about," he says "because if we don't play this right, then the North could indeed take over the South. Either peacefully or in some warlike fashion, while the United States is busy elsewhere."​​

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This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith and Liz Hoath.