Next year’s Winter Olympics are set to take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, roughly 50 miles from the border with North Korea. Given how tense the nuclear standoff between the US and North Korea has gotten in recent months, many fear that North Korea might try to disrupt the games with an attack or other provocative behavior like a nuclear test.
To try to avoid that outcome, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, is pushing the US to postpone its annual joint military drills with South Korea until after the Olympics.
The US and South Korea hold joint military drills every spring to maintain readiness in case of potential war with North Korea and to demonstrate their military strength and resolve. One of the biggest is “Foal Eagle,” which this past year included around 30,000 US and South Korean troops who jointly practiced air, sea, and special operations from March to April.
North Korea usually perceives these exercises as preparation for an invasion, and usually responds pretty harshly every time.
South Korea is rightly worried about what North Korea could do before or during the Olympics, since Pyongyang already has a deadly track record. In 1987, North Korean agents bombed Korean Airlines Flight 858, killing all 115 people onboard. The attack was meant to deter attendees at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
But if President Donald Trump were to accept Moon’s offer, it’s entirely possible that North Korea would see the move as a sign of good faith and decide not to take any action around the Olympics to reignite tensions.
Trump likely won’t accept the proposal
China and North Korea consistently have advocated for a “freeze for freeze” plan, in which Pyongyang would stop improving its nuclear and missile programs if the US and South Korea — and potentially Japan — stopped conducting military exercises together. Trump, however, has consistently rejected that proposal.
Retired Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson, the Pentagon’s top Asia official from 2009 to 2011, is also skeptical of Moon’s suggestion. “What does North Korea do in return?” he told me in an interview. “If it is nothing worthwhile, then it is not a good idea to preemptively compromise in the hope that it will somehow cause a change in North Korea’s actions. We would be extending an olive branch in response to North Korean and Chinese intimidation.”
A Pentagon spokesperson declined to say if there are currently plans to pause the upcoming drills with South Korea, saying only that “it would be inappropriate to discuss plans for future exercises at this time.”
In the Tuesday interview with NBC News, South Korean president Moon said, “I hope that this Olympics will be able to promote the peace between the North and South Korea and become an Olympics for peace.”
Whether Trump, who so far hasn’t shown much willingness to deescalate tensions with North Korea, is willing to help Moon make that happen remains to be seen.