Ban Ki-moon (Credit: Joël Saget /AFP)
As athletes and fans gather in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics, the words of Pierre du Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games, have a particular resonance that goes far beyond the sporting arena: “L’important, c’est du participer,” — “It’s the taking part that counts.”
North and South Korean athletes will march together in the opening ceremony under a neutral banner called the Korean Peninsula Flag and a joint women’s ice hockey team will compete in the games. This symbolic gesture of reconciliation and joint teamwork is powerful in itself, but it also offers a unique chance for meaningful progress behind the scenes to help resolve the nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea’s decision to send Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the opening ceremony, together with Kim Yong-nam, the chair of the Supreme People’s Assembly, is encouraging for hopes of diplomatic engagement and rapprochement.
The need could not be more acute. For the past quarter of a century, the focus of the international community’s efforts has been on preventing North Korea becoming a nuclear-armed state. But it may now be the case that the north has entered the final stage of completing the ICBM technology that can reach and hit the continental US loaded with a miniaturised nuclear warhead.
The objective is unchanged; achieving complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of North Korean nuclear weapons and programmes. But the immediate challenge is to achieve that objective in a way that avoids conflict and further nuclear proliferation in the region and beyond. There is also a longer-term need for a new, regional security framework in North-East Asia to replace the fragile, temporary peacekeeping arrangements that have existed since the end of the Korean war.
Diplomats and security experts worldwide warn that the risk of a devastating war is unprecedented. Last month, the Doomsday Clock was reset at two minutes to midnight — the closest to midnight it has been in 65 years.
We know from experience how critical it is to recognise — and then seize — unexpected moments to try and change a dangerous trajectory of events. The Olympic detente could be such a moment. We welcome the gesture of bilateral North-South talks that Kim Jong Un offered in his annual New Year’s Day address. While the three rounds of talks held so far have mainly focused on the modalities of the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics, further talks on security-related confidence-building measures have also been agreed.
All parties must use this Olympic moment to nurture a positive atmosphere that enables a genuine dialogue to continue, including bilateral military talks. We must make sure that after the Paralympics end, in March, the goodwill does not disappear as fast as the winter snow melts.
In this regard, North Korea’s military parade on the eve of the opening ceremony of the Games was provocative, harming the positive mood. At this critical time, all concerned must avoid inflammatory rhetoric and military activities. Patient diplomacy and sustained engagement can yield results, as we have seen with the Iran nuclear agreement, negotiated between Tehran and the P5+1 countries, including, of course, the US.
We continue to believe that the Iran deal is the best way to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and that it can serve as an inspiration for developing a comparable diplomatic process to resolve the current tensions on the Korean peninsula.
A permanent peace treaty requiring North Korea to fully comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2397: to “immediately abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner”, beginning with unfettered access of the International Atomic Energy Agency to the nuclear facilities, would be the ideal outcome.
The path to such an accord will be long and arduous, requiring stamina and discipline from all sides. Let us hope that leaders on both sides of the 38th parallel, as well as the international community, will follow the example of their Olympic athletes in striving for the greatest prize of all: a lasting, not temporary, peace on the Korean peninsula.
The writer was UN Secretary-General from 2007-2016 and is now a member of The Elders. This article was written in consultation with Kofi Annan, winner of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize and chair of The Elders.
This article first appeared in the Financial Times.