Why you should care
North Korea is deciding to play nice.
This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What happened? For the first time since 2015, the two Koreas sat down to talk peace and, strangely enough, the Winter Olympics. After an 11-hour meeting, North Korea agreed to send a delegation to the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month, while both sides pledged to pencil in a future meeting to consider knocking military tensions down a notch and perhaps even reuniting families from opposite sides of the 38th parallel.
Why does it matter? The diplomatic breakthrough comes after months of North Korean brinksmanship. Pyongyang’s threats of attack and increasingly frequent missile tests have left many analysts busy figuring out the odds of a nuclear war between the United States and the militaristic dictatorship — with South Korea caught in the middle. This week’s progress, though still modest, suggests a meaningful de-escalation of the conflict could be possible.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
It’s a clever move by Kim Jong Un. By reaching out to Seoul himself last week, the portly dictator has transitioned quickly from saber rattling to statesmanship. Analysts say the move reflects a deft calculation aimed at loosening up the partnership between Washington and Seoul, at least when it comes to pressuring Pyongyang over its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
But don’t get too excited. During the meeting, North Korea refused to discuss its nuclear weapons program. Its chief delegate even called the idea “ridiculous,” adding that the weapons are aimed at America, not its “brethren” in South Korea. Those comments also raised suspicions that Kim Jong Un is just playing for time to further develop North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile program.
Washington isn’t exactly poised for peace either. Even as the two Koreas came to the table — and as the State Department cautiously welcomed the move — reports circulated of a potential U.S. military strike. Known as the “bloody nose” strategy, the attack would target a specific North Korean facility in response to another test. While limited in scope, it’s still an enormously risky move, and the fact that officials are even considering it reveals the fragile nature of this week’s talks.
That’s why it could be up to the athletes to mend fences. North Korea’s Olympic delegation currently only includes two athletes: figure skating duo Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik. But the rogue nation is no stranger to the Olympics, having racked up 56 medals in total — seven medals in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 alone. Rio was also the site of an encouraging selfie taken by two gymnasts from either side of the 38th parallel. The hope that the Olympic flame will thaw relations may be why the IOC announced this week that it’ll extend the qualifying deadline for North Korean athletes, though it’s not clear how that will work in practice.
WHAT TO READ
What a North Korean Propaganda Book Taught Me about America, by Sean Illing in Vox.
“The book’s prose is awful and the claims are wildly overstated, but it offers a revealing look at how U.S. foreign policy is perceived from the perspective of the North Korean regime — and North Korean citizens, who are fed this propaganda.”
The Risk of Nuclear War With North Korea, by Evan Osnos in The New Yorker.
“The mentions of war and weaponry were everywhere: on television, on billboards, in the talk of well-rehearsed schoolchildren. When I attended a show at Pyongyang’s Rungna Dolphinarium, in which dolphins flipped and jumped and performed tricks, the finale featured a video montage that included the image of a missile soaring across the sky.”
WHAT TO WATCH
North Korea’s figure skating duo perform at the 2017 World Championships:
Watch on YouTube:
How a nuclear war with North Korea might play out:
“As history shows, it’s highly unlikely that the U.S. could avoid a more strenuous confrontation.”
Watch at The Wall Street Journal:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Preparing for a potential war with North Korea reportedly involves training thousands of American soldiers in “tunnel warfare” and equipping them with night vision goggles and acetylene torches. That’s because the country is littered with underground tunnels — some of them reaching into the South — that are used to transport troops and hide weapons.