Hyon Song-wol, in a YouTube still

The public burning of an image of Kim Jong-un by protestors reflects the public disdain over North Korean celebrity Hyon Song Wol’s visit to South Korea.  

Protestors in South Korea expressed displeasure with the visit of North Korean celebrity Hyon Song Wol by publicly burning an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The incident comes amidst an apparent effort at engagement and de-escalation between the two nations, focused on the winter Olympics to be held in Seoul this year. Given the pitch of relations between the two countries, the response is a worrying, if not entirely unsurprising signal about the internal dynamics of South Korean politics.

Coupled with the announcement that North Korea will send athletes to the 2018 Olympic games, who will march alongside their South Korean counterparts under a united flag, Hyon’s visit would seem to indicate that the north is looking to ease friction between the two countries. Hyon is, after, not only an influential cultural figure in the north but a powerful political actor as well, and as such she drew considerable attention to the visit.

Moreover, the prospect that North Korea will send its own Olympic athletes to the 2018 games provides a certain assurance of safety. The threat of a nuclear attack has certainly garnered the lion’s share of public attention in the west, but the most immediate danger might come from the North’s massive buildup of artillery pointed at Seoul.

If the North Korean government decided to launch an attack against the south, it could almost certainly inflict horrific damage before the South Korean military or any of its allies could respond. A highly visible event, and one that openly displays the influence of the liberal international order that has repeatedly condemned North Korea’s actions would represent an especially impactful time to launch that sort of attack. With the north promising to participate in the games, that possibility seems far less likely.

Many in South Korea, though, do not seem to be taking Kim Jong Un at his word. Recent polls in the country show a majority of South Koreans expressing disapproval at the move to compete alongside North Korean athletes in the 2018 Olympics. There is an intuitive sort of logic to this type of reaction; the north preceded its move to engage with a barrage of threats against its neighbor, sapping some of the credibility from its move to reconcile. On the other hand, South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, has long expressed a desire to soften relations with the north, and in light of his stance, it would seem that his government should have the mandate to undertake a more conciliatory strategy.

The unwillingness of South Koreans who voted for Moon to accept North Korean participation in the upcoming Olympics may be a product of this particular diplomatic exchange at this particular moment in time. Given the mounting tensions that preceded the move, competing under a unified flag might be viewed as rewarding the North’s strategy of brinksmanship, signaling to them that they may threaten force to impose their demands without endangering their chances for favorable negotiations. Furthermore, the North’s strategy can be seen as a new way to achieve its longtime goal of limiting US influence in the Korean peninsula by unwinding the mutual threat that has kept South Korea and the United States invested in their close partnership.

Whether or not Kim is acting in good faith is difficult to assess from afar, but the south’s reaction seems to indicate that many in the country have already decided what they believe about his motives, and that fact may be just as significant for the region’s future.

Read also: It Is High Time For President Trump To Initiate Dialogue With Pyongyang

Peter holds BA from Harvard University with a concentration in government. He is an expert on matters of national security and has worked for advocacy organizations around the U.S. Peter lives in New York.

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