On January 9, North Korea and South Korea began their first official high-level talks since December 2015. If these talks secure the attendance of a North Korean delegation at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics and Paralympics, North Korea is much less likely to carry out a provocation during the games.
The talks have been condoned by the highest levels of government on both sides: South Korean President Moon Jae-in reciprocated North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s message on January 1 that his government would be open to inter-Korean dialogue about the Olympics. The two leaders may listen in on the talks that are being held in the Panmunjeom buildings that straddle the Military Demarcation Line between the two Koreas.
The talks are a positive indicator for bilateral relations: although their outcome has yet to be confirmed, North Korea agreed to send a delegation of athletes, officials, and reporters to the games, while South Korea proposed that the two Koreas jointly march in the opening ceremony and hold reunions for families divided between the two countries. In addition a joint statement stated that the two Koreas would re-start military-to-military communications.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump’s agreement on January 4 that US-South Korea joint military exercises would be delayed so as to not coincide with the Olympics and Paralympics was likely a catalyst for the talks. North Korea routinely criticizes these exercises as training to attack and launches short- or medium-range missiles in response.
If the US-South Korea joint military exercises do not overlap with the games and if a North Korean delegation to PyeongChang is confirmed, a low-level attack or demonstration of North Korea’s advanced weapons capabilities is unlikely. Likely provocations would include a cyberattack, an incursion over the maritime boundary, fire over the de facto land border, or a missile test.
Nonetheless, the increased incidence of North Korean missile launches in 2017, as well as cyberattacks attributed to North Korea’s government, poses a security risk to South Korea’s hosting of the Olympics and Paralympics. The most probable provocations include a cyberattack on government-, military-, or Olympics-related individuals, servers, and websites, an incursion across the maritime boundary, artillery fire across the disputed land border, or the firing of a ballistic missile that would probably cause foreign governments to call for the evacuation of their athletes.
Alison Evans is deputy head of Asia-Pacific Country Risk at IHS Markit.