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The Quiet Diplomacy to Save the Olympics in a Nuclear Standoff

The Final Sprint

With time running out, Mr. Moon sought help from the Trump administration. Just as North Korea preferred to deal with the United States alone in nuclear negotiations, some argued that the North wanted Washington to step up on the Olympics, too.

Speaking by telephone the day after the November missile test, Mr. Moon asked Mr. Trump to announce that he would send a high-level American delegation to attend the Games. That would help dispel uncertainty over the event and signal to Mr. Kim that the United States took the Games seriously.

Mr. Trump agreed it was important that the Olympics go smoothly, and said Mr. Moon could tell the I.O.C. that Washington would send a high-level delegation, Mr. Moon’s office said at the time.

Relations between the two presidents were difficult. They had staked out different positions on the North Korean crisis, and Mr. Trump had made his disdain of Mr. Moon public, even accusing him of “appeasement,” an extraordinary dig at any American ally.

A glimmer of interest from the North in easing tensions came in December, when the government requested a visit by Jeffrey Feltman, a senior official at the United Nations. The Trump administration approved of the trip, and Mr. Feltman traveled to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, for meetings with diplomats.

“We suggested to them that they needed to take advantage of the Olympics and use the Olympics as a way to get dialogue going,” he said. The North Koreans were noncommittal, but Mr. Feltman gently suggested that the world would be paying attention to whatever Mr. Kim said next.

In Washington, the Trump administration began discussing Mr. Moon’s position. The most sensitive question was his proposal to delay the joint military exercises that were scheduled to begin near the end of the Olympics and during the Paralympic Games.

Some officials argued that any delay would be seen as a concession to Mr. Kim and undermine the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” approach to the North. But as the administration deliberated, word of South Korea’s preference for a delay began to appear in news reports. Then, during the youth soccer tournament in Kunming, Mr. Moon publicly confirmed that he had suggested postponing the exercises.

In the flurry of diplomacy that followed, the United States publicly agreed to the delay and Mr. Kim announced that he would send his athletes, surprising the world.

In Washington, some officials were more worried about another aspect of Mr. Kim’s proclamations, specifically a declaration in his New Year’s speech that North Korea would begin “mass production” of nuclear weapons and missiles in 2018.

But the spotlight had shifted to the Olympics, and the momentum now was behind diplomacy and good will. The North received the promised logistical and financial help, and some of its athletes will be allowed to compete without qualifying.

And in a surprise development on Wednesday, the North said that Mr. Kim’s influential sister, Kim Yo-jong, would attend the Games, making her the first immediate member of the North’s ruling family to set foot in the South.

White House officials have defended delaying the joint military exercises, saying that South Korea needed to focus on Olympic security for such a vital event. “For us it’s a practical matter,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters.

But the Olympics hardly resolve the nuclear standoff. Before heading to the Games, Vice President Mike Pence delivered perhaps his harshest remarks about the North Korean regime. “The American people, the people of Japan and freedom-loving people across the wider world long for the day when peace and prosperity replace Pyongyang’s belligerence and brutality,” he said.

Such language, analysts said, edged the Trump administration closer to a position of “regime change,” something it has not formally embraced.

Still, Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the Games were a chance for the North to present itself as a normal country rather than a pariah state. “There’s no political or financial cost for North Korea,” she said. “So why not?”

Other analysts said the timing also suited the North’s weapons program, giving its scientists time to study the results of last year’s missile launches and repair its underground nuclear test facility.

But Mr. Moon continues to argue that the North’s participation in the Olympics may lead to talks on resolving the nuclear standoff, and he has publicly credited Mr. Trump’s tough policies with contributing to the détente.

Mr. Trump has been happy to accept credit, boasting that the Olympics were moving ahead because of him and expressing satisfaction, and even a hint of hope, over the North’s decision to attend.

“I’d like to see them getting involved in the Olympics,” he told reporters in January, “and maybe things go from there.”

Source: NYT > World

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