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Asia-Pacific

Two Koreas get closer at Winter Olympics, leaving US out in cold

media North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (R) and his wife Ri Sol-ju (C) at Wednesday's military parade - screengrab North Korea's KCTV KCTV/AFP

US Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea Thursday for the Winter Olympics promising tough action against the North. But with the two Koreas enjoying a rapprochement, his hawkish tone may be out of synch with the new-found warmth in neighbourly relations.

Before leaving for the resort city of Pyeongchang, Pence had a clear message to the North Korean regime: "We will be there to remind the world that North Korea is the most tyrannical and repressive regime on the planet."

He also warned Kin Jong-un's government not to underestimate the US's military strength or resolve, vowing to maintain pressure "until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes once and for all”.

On Thursday, however, it was North Korea's military strength that was on full display, as troops, missiles and tanks paraded through Pyongyang under Kim's watchful gaze, just hours before the opening of the Winter Olympics.

For Scott Lucas, a professor of American Studies at Birmingham University, Pence might struggle to get his voice heard.

"I don’t think anyone’s going to turn him away but I think he’ll be expected to behave himself and not try to use this for political grandstanding, especially to try to disrupt the maneouvres between the two Koreas at this point," he told RFI.

Tensions soared last year as the North carried out a number of weapons tests, including intercontinental ballistic missiles it said were capable of reaching the US mainland.

"The Americans are not used to be threatened directly like this," Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation told RFI.

"Until now the Americans have been defending their allies in this part of the world: the Japanese, and the South Koreans, now it’s self-defense. So there’s a real determination to solve this nuclear weapons programme," he said.

Two teams under one flag

But the dynamics have changed. North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics has significantly reduced tensions on the peninsula.

That will be evident on Friday when North Korean athletes march at the opening ceremony of the Olympics alongside athletes from the South under one flag--for the first time since 1991.

"The Olympics has been this timely platform to symbolically show that the Koreas have something in common," comments Lucas.

Top officials from North Korea, including People's Assembly president Kim Yong-nam and Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo-jong, are meeting South Korean President Moon Jae-In Saturday, further underscoring this new honeymoon period.

"There is a possibility of rapprochement between people on both sides of the divide and no one wants the US to destabilise that,” says Lucas.

“I wouldn’t call it a rapprochement," cautions Breen. "But the North Koreans I think are pulling out the stops to calm things down, to demonstrate that they’re not as crazy as they’re portrayed to be."

For Breen, the main protagonists in this affair are not the two Koreas but Pyongyang and Washington.

"Don’t forget, the North Koreans don’t want to talk to the South Koreans--they’re just being polite right now. They want to talk to the Americans."

Sanctions and tough talk

For now, there are no talks planned between the North Koreans and the Americans, although neither side is ruling anything out.

The North could be lukewarm to the idea given that it's about to be slapped with a new round of sanctions, the "toughest and most aggressive yet", Pence has promised.

For Breen, Pence's hard line could pay dividends, especially given the fact that Pence is coming to Pyeongchang with the father of a young American boy who was detained by the North Koreans and died after being released.

"Pence is coming with this boy’s father, which is not a very diplomatic thing to do," comments Breen. "But the message being sent is if you want to talk with us, it can’t just be the same old, same old, this has got to be real."

All sides want to avoid a military confrontation, Lucas reckons, for his part, even the Americans, although they're not saying it officially.

"The State Department at lower levels, quietly but effectively, has been talking to the Chinese, South Koreans, Japanese, asking what can we do to make sure we don’t blow the region up."

According to Lucas, there's more than one American policy at play. "It just so happens that the more effective level is the one you don’t hear about which is the State Department’s push for diplomacy rather than Trump’s chest-thumping."

With so much going on on the diplomatic field, politics may steal the limelight from sport at Pyeongchang.

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