Games a reminder of stakes in Koreas

Pyeongchang Olympics Koreas Hockey Future
FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2018 file photo, North Korea's Jin Ok (32), of the combined Koreas team, joins teammates Park Yoonjung (23), Park Ye-eun (11), Kim Selin (8), and Kim Heewon (12) during the third period of the classification round of the women's hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. The Korean women’s hockey team coming together for the Pyeongchang Games helping countries separated for decades to come together - if only for a few weeks of games - is a moment for history. Now only South Korea can decide if hockey fever takes root and the country becomes a regular on the international stage, or if all this effort was simply to put on a good show as Olympic hosts. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File)

The Seattle Times (TNS)

One triumph at the Winter Olympics that’s worth celebrating is South Korea’s success convincing the United States to engage in talks with North Korea.

This may only delay stronger sanctions, but it could dial down the scary rhetoric that’s put the region on edge. It’s always better to talk with adversaries rather than tweet about them.

Meanwhile people viewing the games are seeing not only great athletes but also glimpses of people whose lives could be in grave danger if tensions with North Korea escalate into a second Korean War.

Even those tuning in just for sports might end up with a better understanding of South Korea, which would suffer greatly if the U.S. ever used military force in an attempt to halt North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development.

The Olympic opening ceremony was conducted in Pyeongchang’s 35,000-seat stadium. At least that many Koreans could be obliterated if President Donald Trump follows through on past threats against North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Crackling tension between the mercurial leaders heightens the games’ drama, as does host country South Korea’s efforts to turn down the heat and avoid a conflagration.

North Korea poses a serious danger and rattles its sabers with recent nuclear and missile-launch tests. Despite Trump’s ominous rhetoric, the U.S. must avoid military action. Start with talks, and be prepared to pursue stricter sanctions and improved statecraft.

The U.S. also must come to terms with the fact that North Korea is now a nuclear power and consider finding ways to limit, rather than eliminate, that threat. Even if the threat could be eliminated with force, that may be a Pyrrhic victory.

Attacking North Korea likely would provoke a counterattack by the rogue nation that has artillery aimed at Seoul, a metropolitan area with 25 million residents, and missiles that can reach the U.S.

That threat reduces options to slow or halt North Korea’s weapons development.

Sanctions haven’t worked yet, partly because of China’s uneven support. If talks aren’t fruitful, sanctions should be strengthened and given more time.

Despite Trump’s bluster, that may be the primary plan. Vice President Mike Pence earlier this month said the U.S. soon will announce “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever.”

Then, after Pence met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the Olympics, the U.S. indicated it was open to preliminary talks with North Korea.

Moon has a “strong incentive to lower the atmospheric tensions a bit,” which would make it more difficult for the U.S. to consider using military force, said David Bachman, Henry M. Jackson professor of international studies at the University of Washington.

“On the Korean Peninsula both the north and the south are trying to make it seem less fraught than it is, but clearly for the North Koreans, it’s just buying time,” he said.

Talking is a start. But the U.S. will probably still need to increase sanctions and pressure on other countries to enforce them.

Meanwhile, the Pyeongchang Olympics offer glimpses of what’s at stake.