The Olympic Games that provide the stage for the world’s top athletes every four years often becomes an arena for high-level diplomacy due to having many political leaders in one place at the same time.
This year, there will be 26 leaders at the head of state level from 21 countries at the PyeongChang Olympic opening ceremony Friday. As the host, President Moon Jae-in plans to have separate, personal meetings with at least 14 of them.
Most of the meetings, to be held in the form of formal summit talks or meetings over tea or dinner, will have a routine agenda like other top-level meetings with the aim of pledging closer cooperation on bilateral relations and global issues.
But at least two of the meetings -- one with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Vice President Mike Pence -- are certain to pose heavy challenges to Moon.
First, Moon who will meet Abe on the day of the Olympics has to tackle the reignited dispute over the Korean victims of the Japanese military sex slavery during World War II.
The meeting, to be held in PyeongChang, is the third between the two leaders since Moon took office last May. However, it is their first get-together since the Moon government faulted the 2015 sex slavery agreement which was made when Park Geun-hye was president.
The Moon government’s position drew angry reactions from Abe, who once tied his trip to PyeongChang to the issue. He made it clear that he would clarify Japan’s position that the agreement should remain intact in the PyeongChang meeting.
Given past experiences, Moon and Abe would not be able to reach a full agreement in the single round of meetings. That means both sides need to be prudent to prevent the issue from derailing their efforts to recover relations that have become strained in recent years.
Moon’s meeting with the US vice president on the eve of the Olympics opening will pose a stiffer challenge as they are to discuss the latest developments surrounding North Korea, and more importantly, what course of action the allies should take to deal with Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile ambitions.
Pence will be coming to South Korea during a sudden thaw in relations between the two Koreas for the PyeongChang Olympics.
The South and the US postponed their joint military exercises until after the Olympics, to which the North responded with its participation in the Olympics. North Korea’s Olympic delegation consists of only 22 athletes in five sports, but both the Koreas were determined to seize the opportunity to boost the reconciliatory mood on the peninsula.
The two Koreas will march together under the symbolic Korean Peninsula flag and field a unified team in women’s hockey. Besides, South Korean skiers visited a ski resort in North Korea to have joint training -- the first of its kind -- and the North will send hundreds of cheering squads and a music band.
The North will also send a high-level government delegation led by Kim Yong-nam, ceremonial head of state whose official title is the president of the Presidium of the Supreme People‘s Assembly. He will be the highest-ranking North Korean official who has visited South Korea in recent years.
Moon, an advocate of engagement policy toward the North, is convinced that the thaw on the peninsula should lead to greater exchanges and cooperation between the two Koreas and dialogue between the North and the US as well.
The problem is that some in South Korea and the US are skeptical of the reconciliatory mood built by the hastily-arranged participation of North Korea.
The skepticism was reflected by the persistent talk of the US preparing a military action, including a surgical preventive strike against key facilities in North Korea.
President Donald Trump said the situation was “tricky.” That Trump invited a North Korean defector to his State of the Union address and met more at the White House was also seen as a move to put up pressure on Pyongyang despite what’s happening between the two Koreas.
Pence, who will be meeting Moon, said he was going to South Korea to say that strategic patience was over and that only maximum pressure through economic and diplomatic sanctions would compel the North to give up its nuclear and missile programs.
With US officials sticking to maximum pressure and publicly talking about wide-ranging options, including military ones, the most important factor will be what course of action North Korea will take.
All considered, Moon faces the challenge of persuading the North and the US to start talks, while not hindering the international sanctions against Pyongyang and not allowing any crack in the South Korea-US alliance. Moon’s meeting with Pence may give clues as to the potential for the success of his endeavors.