What To Make Of North Korea's Olympic Overtures NPR's Scott Simon talks to Jung Pak at the Brookings Institution's Center for East Asia Policy Studies about North Korea's military and diplomatic goals ahead of the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

What To Make Of North Korea's Olympic Overtures

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There'll be a rare sight at the Winter Olympics next month in South Korea. Both Koreas will march in under a unified Korean flag. But the day before the Olympics begin, a military parade is set to happen in North Korea. What does one symbol say about the other? We're joined now by Jung Pak, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution Center for East Asia Policy Studies. Thanks so much for being with us.

JUNG PAK: Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: And let's start with the Olympics. That moment when the unified flag, if you please, walks in and teams from two Koreas - is it just a show, or does it mean something more?

PAK: It depends on who you ask. For the South Koreans who have been really eager to have a successful Olympics and for the president, Moon Jae-in's administration, who has really pushed for better ties to North Korea, this will be a big success for them in terms of getting the North Koreans to participate, to march under the joint flag and to mitigate any potential North Korean provocations that could have happened during the Olympics and ruin the whole atmosphere. But in terms of applying maximum pressure on North Korea and getting them to denuclearize, this is just a minor blip on the radar.

SIMON: And what do we make of the military parade in North Korea just before? Is that a way of saying we don't mean it, or what?

PAK: Absolutely. I think - you know, I've been likening the North Korean participation in the Olympics as kind of like "The Wedding Crashers," where they just storm in, guzzle everybody's champagne, other people's food and then they're going to leave a mess behind. And nothing they've said since Kim Jong Un's New Year's address has suggested that they're going to be talking about their nuclear weapons program at all. In fact, they've not had any pressure from South Korea or anybody in terms of talking about nuclear weapons.

SIMON: Well - and that brings up a question. And I feel the need to ask it every now and then - why does North Korea want nuclear weapons? What's their overall strategic goal?

PAK: Their strategic goal is to have this for deterrence, for prestige and finally for a course of diplomacy. And, you know, I think while primarily these weapons are for defensive purposes, I think we have to be very mindful of the possibility that Kim Jong Un has offensive aspirations, such as creating conditions that would be conducive for reunification on his terms.

SIMON: Well, follow that up, please - because when you talk about the fact that they might have a motive to use them offensively how - what would that scenario be?

PAK: So one of the things that the North Koreans have been demanding is that the U.S. leave the Korean peninsula. As you know, there are close to 30,000 U.S. service members based in South Korea. And why they want the U.S. to be off the Korean peninsula is so that they can continue to poke and prod and start creating conditions where they can use the nuclear weapons to prevent the U.S. from intervening in any attempts for North Korea to try to reunify. And I don't mean that they're necessarily going to be using nuclear weapons but that there are other means of creating conditions.

SIMON: Has time run out for the United States to somehow prevent North Korea from having a nuclear arsenal?

PAK: We're definitely - the North Koreans are definitely farther ahead than, let's say, where we were 10 years ago or even five years ago for that matter. And I would say that the options have probably diminished as a result of that. But I still do think that there's plenty of runway for us to shape Kim Jong Un's behavior.

SIMON: What options does the U.S. have?

PAK: Sanctions are a key part of maximum pressure campaign that the Trump administration has been advancing. And sanctions have never been as tough - tougher than now. They're broad. They target sectors. They try to cut off North Korea's efforts to earn hard currency to support their economy and their nuclear weapons program. And there is anecdotal evidence that the North Koreans are starting to feel the pinch. And I think the Olympic outreach is in part a sign of the fact that they're feeling the pinch of sanctions and that they saw outreach as a way to try to get South Korea to agree to loosen sanctions implementation or try to lure South Korea away from the maximum pressure campaign.

SIMON: Jung Pak, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution Center for East Asia Policy Studies. Thanks so much.

PAK: Thank you.

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