Pyeongchang Politics Part II: Ivanka Visits and US-NK Talks

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Cheng @jchengWSJ

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Cheng @jchengWSJ

We mentioned previously that North Korea is likely to send a high level delegation to South Korea for the closing ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Depending on how talks went during the opening ceremony and in the interim, we could see either public shunning by the United States of the North Korea delegation or on the other extreme, a public gesture between Ivanka Trump and the North Koreans.

As North Korea is still unlikely to contemplate denuclearization, it seems that the negotiation continues. Some things to note in the run-up to the closing and at the closing:

1. US opts to impose high profile sanctions on North Korea prior to closing ceremony

From the US point of view, sanctions are leverage. The purpose is to convey prior to any talks in Pyeongchang/Seoul that North Korea does not have a way out of their economic situation if they do not compromise with or talk to the US.

2. Ivanka Trump is not a diplomat but still a good choice to carry a message

Just as we thought Kim Yo Jong was a good choice, we also believe Ivanka Trump is a good choice in terms of conveying a message to the North Koreans. With Secretary Tillerson being undercut by White House messaging, a message from a trusted member of the Trump family to the North Koreans is likely to carry much weight with the Kim family dominated system in the North. With Jared Kushner under a cloud of investigation, Ivanka is the best person to carry this message.

3. Kim Yong Chol leading delegation indicates current direction of talks

While it is still unclear who is accompanying Kim Yong Chol, reports indicate that there are people linked to US-NK talks. Kim Yong Chol as head of the delegation is unsurprising as he is de facto in-charge of inter-Korean relations as United Front Director. However, having no other similar level delegate linked to US-NK talks (e.g. Ri Su Yong/ Foreign Minister) might indicate that there is little progress on getting US-NK talks restarted and North Korea is putting their outreach emphasis on South Korea for now.


4. Ivanka is accompanied by competent career Korea-focused officials

While it is not unusual for the US National Security Council Director for Korea to attend a visit to South Korea, Allison Hooker is career official with long experience on Korean affairs and is reported to have met Kim Yong Chol previously when James Clapper and her visited Pyongyang to retrieve a captive American. It probably makes sense for the US to continue exploring avenues for talks with North Korea, even if these goes nowhere. And its unlikely the US will let an opportunity to quiz high level DPR Koreans on their positions go to waste.

5. Moon Jae In the Mediator

A big foreign policy winner in all of this is Moon Jae In. We are not sure about domestic impact until polling results come out. However, early polls by Gallup indicate South Koreans warming up to his approach to North Korea. But last year, it was all about "Korea Passing" and how South Korea was irrelevant on its paramount issue. Now, Moon gets to play matchmaker and peacemaker. Its still a difficult road to a resolution but at least someone is trying!

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