How silly is it in the general scheme of things that America’s vice president Mike Pence and the sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Yong-un should sit within a few feet of each other at the Winter Olympics in South Korea and fail to acknowledge each other? It is another stand-off, albeit a minor one, in a dispute that calls for common sense.
I can understand why they, or their aides, might have felt that doing so was inadvisable; neither side wants to be seen as ‘losing face’. But in a fraught dispute – and one that we are led to believe might lead to a nuclear conflict at that – surely a nod of recognition, or a fleeting smile, might have contributed to easing tensions.
I can only suppose that, had Pence done so, it would have been construed as undermining the hard-line posture of the United States towards North Korea, and in the other direction betrayed Kim’s hatred of his American nemesis. But if athletes from North and South could enter the stadium arm-in- arm, as they did, why could leading figures of their respective countries not exchange a handshake?
Presumably both Pence and the lady, Kim Yo-jong (a rather pretty and normal-looking lady, by the way), were under strict instructions to ignore each other; and so they did, on the evidence of pictures in the newspapers. I wonder what they were thinking, as they stared intently at the procession of the opening ceremony, pretending to be interested. Pence probably thought, “I’m following the script, and I’ll be in trouble with the boss if I deviate from it..” Kim’s sister was no doubt wondering what her fate might be if she strayed from hers. Kim is known, or I should say alleged, to have bumped off a relative or two who failed to toe the party line.
And so, Pence will return to Washington and receive a good report card, she to Pyongyang to a heroine’s welcome for her act of defiance in ignoring the Americans.
But apparently all is not lost, because meanwhile King Jong-un has by letter invited the President of South Korea, to pay a visit to Pyongyang, presumably for talks aimed at defrosting relations between the two countries – or, if you prefer, the divided country. Diplomats in the United States will doubtless scoff at this invitation as an empty gesture; and it is, in truth, hard to see what could come of it. But anything is worth trying. As Churchill once remarked, “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”. (Not that it is likely he would have jumped at the chance if invited to meet his nemesis, Herr Hitler, in Berlin.)
President Trump’s response will be interesting. Will he issue another of his tweets deriding against “little rocket man” or will he offer something more conciliatory? His best advice would be to say nothing, and let the Koreans get on with it – whatever ‘it’ may be. President Moon is reported to have said that a dialogue between the United States and North Korea is more important. So it may be, but it can’t hurt that the two leaders on the peninsular are getting to the table first.
Perhaps Pence and Kim Yo-jong will manage, if not a smile, then at least a nod, at the next occasion.