Mark L. Asquino, U.S. Ambassador (ret). Senior Public Diplomacy Fellow, SMPA (2010-11)
The photo from the 2018 Winter Olympics speaks volumes. It shows Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, with glum expressions, sitting in the VIP section in front of Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. In other photos, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo-jong stand as the joint Korean athletes’ delegation marches in the opening ceremony, while the Pences remain seated.
So, what’s wrong with these pictures? On one level, I would say nothing. For starters, the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the pariah state in Pyongyang. Accordingly, one would hardly expect Vice President Pence to warmly greet Kim Jong-un’s official representative in the VIP box, whether they were in close proximity or not. Similarly, Mr. Pence may have felt that standing for the entry of a delegation of athletes that included those from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, a.k.a. North Korea) would have been a form of recognizing that odious regime. However, in deference to his South Korean hosts and their athletes, Pence’s refusal to stand, one could argue, was less than gracious or diplomatic.
More importantly, though, by not using the opportunity of the Olympics to engage, even on an informal level, with the DPRK, the U.S. missed a rare opportunity for direct, diplomatic dialogue with an adversary. In contrast, by inviting North Korea to participate in the Olympics, President Moon Jae-in clearly seized upon this opportunity. He then engaged in discussions on improving relations with Ms. Kim during her visit to Pyeongchang. This led to the North’s inviting Mr. Moon to Pyongyang for a meeting with Kim Jong-un.
Of course, it remains to be seen if this brief, Olympics thaw in relations between North and South Korea will lead to anything substantive. But what it shows to me is the power of public diplomacy, in this case through sports, to facilitate communications.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the U.S. also believed in such diplomacy. Following World War II and the triumph of the Mao Zedong’s forces, our country and the People’s Republic of China (PRC),” had no diplomatic relations for decades. The two governments viewed each other with deep suspicion and became dangerous, nuclear foes. But in 1971, the Nixon administration saw the value of using sports to open up an informal dialogue with the PRC. A U.S. table tennis team visited Beijing that year for a friendly competition. It was the first such U.S. delegation to visit mainland China’s capital since 1949. And what became known as “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” proved instrumental in opening the way for President Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to China and to the eventual, normalization of diplomatic relations between our two countries.
I am in no way suggesting an equivalence between China in 1971 and North Korea now. And table tennis is certainly not on the same athletic level as downhill skiing! But I do think that the 2018 Winter Olympics offered the U.S. and North Korea a unique opportunity to engage in quiet diplomacy on the sidelines of this major sports event.
This need not have been done through a face-to-face meeting between Vice President Pence and Kim Yo-jong. Rather, lower level discussions between members of their delegations might have been held. However, after suggesting that the U.S. was open to such contact before the games, the White House backed off from any such dialogue. Instead, Vice President Pence announced before leaving for Pyeongchang that the U.S. would strengthen sanctions against North Korea.
For me this was, indeed, a lost opportunity for diplomacy at a time when it is needed more than ever. And yes, I long for the days of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.”
Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communications or The George Washington University.