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Will Sending North Korean Athletes To The Winter Olympics Change Relations?


North Korea and South Korea are set to meet tomorrow for the first time in two years. Negotiators will meet in the DMZ - that's the demilitarized zone that separates the two countries - and the plan is to talk about the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea and ways the North might participate. In his New Year's speech, North Korean President Kim Jong Un said he was open to sending a delegation and said the two sides should talk about it. In past Olympics, North and South Korea have marched under the same flag, so what's the big deal with this Olympics?

To answer that we have reached out to Tina Park on Skype. She's a North Korea scholar with the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. It's based out of the University of Toronto. Welcome to the show.


MCEVERS: So you wrote in a piece in Maclean's magazine that North Korea often uses international sporting events as a way to boost its legitimacy, but you seem to believe that these particular talks could be a breakthrough. Why?

PARK: Well, it is important to recognize that for over two years the two Koreas have not been talking. And in fact, the relationship between the North and the South has deteriorated for the past decade. So this is only a first step forward in terms of bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table, and we have to watch very carefully in terms of North Korea's next moves, like, you know, missile testing or nuclear testing.

MCEVERS: One can't help but think of the United States government and President Donald Trump and the, you know, heightened rhetoric between him and Kim Jong Un. Is this, do you think, a way for South Korea to say, we're sort of taking matters into our own hands here?

PARK: In a way, yes. We have to, I think, remember that even though there may seem to be discontent and disagreement between President Trump and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, the fact of the matter is it's a very solid alliance between the United States and South Korea. And we have over 28,500 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea. But what is different is that there's a very clear vision that South Korean President Moon Jae-in has proposed in terms of how best to move forward in dealing with North Korea.

He doesn't believe that just pressuring North Korea through sanctions will make a difference. And he is himself a son of refugees from North. And he thinks that we have to address the root causes of North Korea's insecurities. And that means having institutions to engage with the cultural and human aspects of the divided Koreas, and also to ensure that the North Korean regime understands that South Korea is not interested in regime change.

So we're seeing, I think, very assertive policy coming out of Seoul. And that's, in fact, a good thing because at the end of the day it is important for the Korean people to find the solution that works for the Korean future.

MCEVERS: Do you imagine, you know, North Korean delegation going to the Olympics and, you know, there being talks between the two sides on the sidelines?

PARK: It's entirely possible because right now the composition of the high-level talks for tomorrow will feature the top-level officials, ministers from the Unification Ministry, and there will be emphasis on more long-term contact like family reunions and economic exchanges potentially. So I am certainly hopeful that this won't be just a one-time event for the Olympics and that the dialogue will continue moving forward.

MCEVERS: Tina Park is executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. Thank you so much.

PARK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SEA AND THE CAKE'S "THE ARGUMENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.