The closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics in South Korea will take place on Sunday. Aside from providing the usual entertainment, the games this year served another purpose: They gave the world a breather from worrying about North Korea.
But, sadly, there’s little reason to think the saber-rattling and weapons tests won’t resume. North Korea, judging by past behavior, is overdue to launch at least four missile tests in the first quarter of this year.
The Trump administration yesterday announced its largest sanctions package yet against the rogue nation. Next month, the US and South Korea will announce the dates of military exercises that were delayed out of respect for the Olympics. Either of those announcements could give Pyongyang another excuse to act—last September it threatened to detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific Ocean.
Or, its weapons tests could be timed more randomly, to keep the world on its toes. Either way, the Trump administration will respond with stony faces and fiery rhetoric, even as its North Korea policy remains incoherent (paywall).
Meanwhile, members of the North Korean delegation sent to the Olympics will no doubt be given performance reviews on their conduct. That includes cheerleaders who briefly giggled at a Kim Jong-un impersonator, and one who momentarily clapped for US athletes. Such spontaneous acts could have grave consequences back home, where the slightest offense to the Kim regime can result in merciless punishment.
North Korea did use the occasion of the Olympics to invite South Korean president Moon Jae-in to a summit. Such trips are rare, but not unprecedented. Two such visits, in 2000 and 2007, each led to North Korea receiving significant aid and investment from the South (paywall). But they did little to slow its weapons programs.
Moon seems inclined to accept the invitation, and if he does, he might again delay (paywall) the joint military exercises, prompting Pyongyang to limit or delay its weapons tests. Such a summit could be the best thing to come out of these Olympics, and lead to future plans for talks or cooperation that could reduce future provocations.
Until that happens though, the Kim regime will be busily improving its missile and nuclear technology, with the ability to obliterate US cities very much in mind. And we’ll be back to stressing out about the next unpredictable move from either side.
This was published in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief, our news summary that’s tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas. Sign up for it here.