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Who’s the Fearless Leader Now?

What the Pyeongchang Olympics tell us about political theater in the era of Trump and Kim

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

The Korean Peninsula’s Demilitarized Zone, the world’s most fortified border and of late perhaps its grandest stage for political theater, has been the site of uncommon activity. On January 8, delegations from the North and the South hammered out an agreement at the DMZ’s Joint Security Area allowing Northern athletes to participate in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics this month. The agreement was hailed as a breakthrough, offering a reprieve from the escalating tensions that have characterized the Korean conflict since Donald Trump entered office.

The tangible results of this diplomatic coup are modest. In addition to the participation of the Northern contingent, which includes a pair of figure skaters, Northern and Southern athletes will march together at the opening ceremony under one flag. Furthermore, by securing the North’s participation, the South has bought insurance against Kim Jong Un overshadowing the Games with muscle-flexing tests of an intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach the mainland United States.

That is all that has been secured so far, and there’s no telling what the North will do once the last triple axel has been twirled. The Pyeongchang talks present the kinds of epistemological uncertainties that are hallmarks of the Korean conflict and that Americans have queasily grown used to under Trump: Does the agreement have any substance? Or is this yet another ornate exercise in political theater?

Most evidence points to the latter. An unexpected overture from Kim on New Year’s Day was eagerly accepted by the South’s liberal president, Moon Jae-in, whose calls for dialogue represent a perennial swing of the pendulum toward the so-called Sunshine Policy of greater engagement with the North. The pendulum swings back toward a hard-line posture when conservative governments are voted in, resulting in more sanctions and so forth. Talks or tensions, fundamental aspects of the bilateral relationship never change. The North continues to develop its nuclear weapons program. The South broadens the yawning health-and-prosperity gap between the two. And lasting peace—symbolized by the ultimate dream of reunification—remains elusive.

It is also inauspicious that this burgeoning détente originated in the DMZ. Everything about the Joint Security Area, in particular, is a spectacle designed to perpetuate a narrative. The North uses it to try to convince the world that it is a thriving, humane country, most notably through Kijong-dong, an adjacent Potemkin village set like an ersatz jewel in a ring of blue-green hills. The South gets to showcase its membership in the community of free nations, shuttling tourists from various countries through the very bungalows where Northern and Southern delegations meet. The Americans, meanwhile, use the DMZ to signal to voters back home that they won’t take any guff from funny-haired tyrants like Kim. Last April, Vice President Mike Pence stared sternly over the military demarcation line so that he could tell reporters, “I thought it was important that people on the other side of the DMZ see our resolve in my face.”

Then there is the question of the Olympics themselves, which have long been used by host nations as elaborate exercises in public relations. The South Koreans are not only celebrating their ascendancy to the top tier of developed nations but also pointing to the participation of the North as evidence of thawing relations with the Kim regime. The North will be able to show that it is not so isolated, not so wildly belligerent, as its critics claim. And in a new wrinkle, both countries will be able to assert their independence from America’s own funny-haired tyrant, whose inescapable shadow will darken the political story of the Games as they get underway.

It is seemingly only a matter of time before Kim’s scientists figure out a way to affix nuclear warheads to ICBMs that can survive re-entry through the atmosphere. Trump has responded by engaging in a bellicose tit for tat with Kim, in which it is often difficult to tell which party is the bombastic strongman. Trump likes to call Kim “Little Rocket Man.” Kim has called Trump a “dotard.” When Kim in January claimed that he had a “nuclear button on the desk in my office” that could trigger an attack on America, Trump shot back that his own supposed nuclear button was “much bigger & more powerful” and that his button, unlike Kim’s, works.

In fact, while the Trump administration has made noises about giving Kim a “bloody nose,” there is little incentive for either country to start a war that could result in annihilation for the North Korean state and unthinkable casualties for the South. Most experts agree that the North’s nuclear arsenal is a defensive tool to deter attack or invasion. The United States says all options are on the table, but Defense Secretary James Mattis has admitted that war with the North would be “catastrophic.” The incentives for all parties, including North Korea’s ally China, point toward a continued status quo that involves containing a nuclear-armed North. As Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s national security advisor, has written, “History shows that we can, if we must, tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea.”

Preserving the status quo means making sure Kim’s regime does not suddenly implode, which would trigger a “large-scale humanitarian crisis, including millions of refugees pouring into China and South Korea,” according to the nonpartisan United States Institute of Peace. It means guaranteeing that Kim does not sell a nuclear bomb to a third party. And it means praying that the North does not accidentally strike Japan with an ICBM. (According to The Diplomat, North Korea mistakenly launched a missile at one of its own cities during a botched test last April.) North Korean figure skaters in Pyeongchang, no matter how fetchingly garbed, won’t change these underlying equations.

But another factor might. Trump has tweeted that the North-South talks “are a good thing” and claimed that he would “absolutely” talk to Kim on the phone, despite previously mocking his own secretary of state for pursuing negotiations with the North. Pence, who will be representing the White House at the Pyeongchang Games, is now open to a meeting with North Korean officials. This sudden reversal can be attributed to the usual claims about Trump: that he should be taken “seriously, not literally,” that his off-the-cuff statements do not represent the actual positions of the United States. But, more troublingly, it also suggests that the reality-show president sees no distinction between policy and theater, between appearance and the truth. They are one and the same, making it unclear whether the American president is operating within the iron logic that guides even rogue states like North Korea.

This is well and good when the mask is meant to convey harmony and goodwill. It’s quite another thing when it’s meant to convey fire and fury.