Editor’s Note: CNN national security analyst John Kirby is a retired rear admiral in the US Navy who was a spokesman for both the State and Defense departments in the Obama administration. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Sports is often said to be the great equalizer, but can it also be a great therapist?
That’s what the government of South Korea apparently wants to know.
In his annual New Year’s message, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un said he hoped “for (a) peaceful resolution with our southern border,” and urged talks “as soon as possible” about sending a delegation to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in isn’t wasting any time. He told Cabinet members Tuesday that he welcomed North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s willingness to engage in direct talks. He’s trying to set a meeting as early as next week to help make it possible for North Korean athletes to compete in the Games, which will be held next month.
No word yet on how firm those plans are or exactly who will make up the delegations. But, in a sense, none of that really matters much. They aren’t exactly going to negotiate away Kim’s nukes at this jaw-jab.
More likely, they’ll discuss the specific events in which the North wants to compete, the parameters and qualifications for that competition and the security arrangements in place. One has to believe Kim is worried about team defections (a Pyongyang-to-Pyeongchang express, as it were).
And it shouldn’t be a terribly long conversation, either. Only two North Korean athletes have qualified for the Olympics so far, pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik.
But that’s not really the point, either. Sports may be the topic of conversation. But it’s the fact of the conversation itself that matters more.
The North and the South haven’t had any official talks about, well, much of anything since 2015. And that went nowhere, as evidenced by Kim Jong Un’s frantic efforts to continue threatening his southern neighbor – and the world – with nuclear-tipped intercontinental missiles.
Moon acknowledged this on Tuesday, calling the Winter Games gab “an epoch-making opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations and establish peace.”
Hyperbole aside, he’s got a point. At least the two sides can sit down and have a back-and-forth, maybe even nurture a personal relationship or two. And there’s even a chance they’ll discuss more substantive border issues.
It ain’t much. But it’s a start. And right now, that’s a good thing.
Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told ABC News this weekend that he believes we are closer than ever to nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. He may be right about that, which is all the more reason to find new ways to engage peacefully. There are worse ways to do that than talking about figure skaters.
Some critics worry about Kim trying to pull a fast one. They see his willingness to accept the South’s offer as a way to drive a wedge between the United States and its South Korean ally, to take advantage of the personal tensions that exist between Presidents Trump and Moon. Trump has railed against what he sees as appeasement-seeking by President Moon. Moon has made clear that while he values his American allies, he is nobody’s pawn.
Some would also say Kim hasn’t earned the right to hold direct talks with anyone about anything, that giving him this platform only rewards bad behavior. He’s certainly smug these days, bragging about having a nuclear button on his desk that can send aloft missiles capable of reaching the US mainland. That may be why he deigns to be so magnanimous.
But the US-ROK alliance is bigger than any two personalities, and it’s certainly bigger and stronger than anything Kim Jong Un can throw at it. It has been in place since 1953, surviving – no, thriving – over the course of 12 previous US presidential administrations and 10 South Korean ones. The United States stations nearly 30,000 American troops on the peninsula, deploys scores of ships and aircraft to the region and now have in place advanced missile defense systems there. It’s a vibrant alliance, and literally, as the Koreans like to say, “‘forged in blood.”
To prevent any more bloodshed, the Trump administration must take seriously the threat Kim Jong Un poses and the wiliness with which he may try to pose it. The United States must ensure – as we have been ensuring – enough military capacity is in place to shore up our diplomatic efforts and to deter as best we can any future Kim adventures. And the United States must continue to pressure the international community, China in particular, to fully implement those sanctions in place, even as we pursue more.
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But in the meantime, no one should be afraid to talk, and certainly not about sports.
Famed sportswriter Rick Reilly once quipped that sports is Oprah for guys. Well, maybe that’s exactly what some of the macho men involved in this crisis need right now: a little more Oprah before we go and get all Jerry Springer on each other.
Let the real games begin.