Olympics unlikely to spur North, South Korea cooperation, Risch says

A North Korean man carries his country's national flag after celebrations of the "Day of the Shining Star" or birthday anniversary of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea.
A North Korean man carries his country's national flag after celebrations of the "Day of the Shining Star" or birthday anniversary of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, North Korea. AP

Sen. James Risch doesn’t see the 2018 Winter Olympics as the tonic for the decades-old tension between North and South Korea.

The games, which conclude Sunday, are therapy for the world that “gets people talking and brings people together,” the Idaho Republican told McClatchy. But he couldn’t see how the two nations’ athletic cooperation will lead to diplomatic breakthroughs.

The Winter Games featured North and South Korean athletes marching under a unified flag.

"It’s hard to fathom that just making arrangements for the athletes to compete together will lead to the much more difficult and must more substantive questions that need to be resolved if there’s going to be a de-nuclearization in the peninsula and peace here in the peninsula, which is what everybody wants," Risch said in an interview Saturday with McClatchy. "But the way this is going, it’s difficult."

Risch, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, arrived in Peoyonchang Friday as part of a U.S. delegation led by Ivanka Trump that will attend the Winter Olympics’ closing ceremony Sunday. He was dispatched with White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. Forces Korea; Marc Knapper, interim charge d’affaires in Seoul; and Sgt. Shauna Rohbock, a former Olympic bobsledder.

Risch views the Korean situation from his seats on the foreign relations committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee. He’s in line to become chair of the foreign relations committee if Republicans retain control of the Senate following November’s congressional elections, succeeding Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who isn’t seeking re-election.

Risch arrived in South Korea nearly a week after he warned an international security conference in Munich, Germany, about a confrontation of “biblical proportions” between the United States and North Korea if Kim Jong Un’s regime launches its nuclear weapons first.

The senator stressed Saturday that “nobody wants military action” but added that “the way this is going, it’s difficult.”

While casting doubts that the Winter Olympics could catapult talks between the two Koreas, Risch said he wonders whether Kim is using the games as a potential "door."

"He needs an offering, he needs an exit ramp," Risch said. "If he doesn’t get an exit ramp, this is going to be very serious — he’s got to understand that. So is this is what he’s looking for? One can only hope, but I guess we’ll see."

Risch spent Saturday taking in Olympic events with Ivanka Trump, including watching the U.S. men win their first Olympic gold medal in curling, defeating Sweden 10-7. While the focus of the Pyeongchang visit was to celebrate the Olympics, “you can’t ignore the elephant in the room," Risch said, referring to North Korea.

During a dinner Friday, Trump highlighted her father’s stance of applying “maximum pressure” to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. The dinne was hosted by South Korean President Moon Jae-in at Blue House, the presidential residence.

Her message followed the Trump administration’s announcement earlier in the day of its “largest ever” set of sanctions against on North Korea. The new penalties are aimed at 56 vessels, companies and other entities that the White House believes North Korea uses to skirt previous sanctions.

Moon touted the benefits of talking with North Korea to his dinner guests, using the Winter Olympics as an example, according to Yonhap News Service.

He said "active dialogue is being held between the South and the North’s participation in the Olympics and this is greatly contributing to easing tension on the Korean Peninsula and improving the South-North relationship,” the Korean news agency reported.

"I also believe that such developments are thanks to President Trump’s strong support for inter-Korean dialogue, and I would like to express my deep appreciation on this point, as well," Moon said, according to the Yonhap account.

Risch said the U.S. delegation told Moon "that in dealing with North Korea, we’re going to do it together," reaffirming the message Vice President Mike Pence delivered when he visited South Korea for the Winter Games’ opening ceremony.

"It’s going to be a unified front," Risch added. "We’re singing off the same music.”

A high-level North Korean delegation is attending Sunday’s closing ceremony, including Kim Yong-chol, a former head of the country’s intelligence agency who’s believed to be behind the 2010 sinking of a South Korean Navy ship which killed 46 South Korean sailors.

Risch said he has no plans to meet with North Korean officials before he leaves Pyeongchang for Washington on Monday.

"I think a meeting ought to be well thought out," he said. "It shouldn’t just happen bumping into someone at a curling event."

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas