South Korea is no newcomer to the Olympics. In 1988, its capital city, Seoul, hosted the Summer Olympics. While the Cold War was thawing, the relationship between the northern and southern halves of the Korean peninsula was especially fraught. South Korea was eager to establish itself and move on from the legacy of the Korean War, but North Korea had its own ambitions.
South Korea made minimal efforts to incorporate the north, who originally wanted to co-host the games. South Korea refused, and the country instead offered to let North Korea host five minor sporting events. North Korea, angered and offended, declined. Tensions rose, and the international community began to wonder if North Korea might attempt to disrupt the games. Those fears were confirmed. On November 29, 1987, Korean Air Flight 858 crashed on its way to Seoul from Baghdad. None of the 115 individuals on board survived. It was soon revealed that two North Korean spies had planted a bomb in an overhead compartment in the aircraft before disembarking safely.
Thirty years later, North Korea is still shrouded in an iron curtain. Its government and people remain darkly mysterious to most of the world. However, the situation today seems even more perilous than it did in 1988.
While North Korean leadership appears willing to engage with major powers, US President Donald Trump wavers wildly in policy, and self-appointed Kim Jong Un whisperer Dennis Rodman is only getting older. And let’s not forget that North Korea now has nuclear capabilities, as well as the apparent will to use them.
In November 2017, North Korea tested a new missile that could reportedly reach the continental United States. In an interview with CNN, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis indicated that the missile launch showed North Korea now has the capacity “to hit everywhere in the world.”
But in the case of the 2018 Olympics, this staggering development seems minimal. Why? North Korean missiles would only have to fly around 80 kilometres to reach Pyeongchang. As thousands of athletes and international representatives flood into South Korea, the world will come to North Korea.
In recent months, South Korea has been incredibly active in urging North Korea to participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. As the nuclear standoff intensified throughout 2017, fears of North Korean terrorism or intervention rose once more. The political situation in the United States did not help to assuage these concerns — nor did the rhetoric spewing from one infamous Twitter account.
As the unimaginable crept closer, South Korea grew increasingly conciliatory toward its Northern neighbours. The reasoning behind this is quite straightforward. If North Korea were to be involved in the Olympics in some capacity, it would theoretically be much less likely to attack the games.
In a strange twist, including a hostile nuclear power in an event focused on international cooperation appears to be key in securing that very event. The South Korean efforts came to fruition on January 9, after extended talks between North and South Korean delegations in the border village of Panmunjom. South Korea was represented by Cho Myoung-gyon, the minister focused on relations with the north, while North Korea was represented by Ri Son-kwon in a similar role.
Following their closed circuit television negotiations, North Korea agreed to send a large contingent of athletes to the games, as well as a cheering squad and a performance art group. It was also reported that the two Koreas would join forces to field a women’s hockey team together, which carries heavy symbolic connotations. This is reminiscent of the United States’ ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ efforts in 1971, which helped normalize relations between China and the US through a series of ping-pong matches.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Kim Kyung Sung, head of the South and North Korean Sports Exchange Association, explained that the “significance of the two nations that share a bloodline playing together on a single team cannot be overstated.” But at what cost? It is currently unclear what North Korea hopes to gain from these concessions — some fear that North Korea could use its participation as leverage to push for a lessening of sanctions.
Pundits and politicians alike hope that this blink of peace could lay the foundation for long-term change. South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo believes the 2018 Olympics are a “turning point” for the two Koreas, as the Straits Times reported. The South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, appears deeply committed to facilitating dialogue.
Others, such as Kim Sung Han, a former senior South Korean diplomat, are more pessimistic. The Atlantic reported his comments that, despite the symbolic power of the Olympic merger, “the best-case scenario would be this leading to high-level summit talks… multilateral dialogue for the denuclearization of North Korea.” In other words, the relationship between North and South Korea, as well as that between North Korea and the rest of the world, is much too complex to be solved through sport.
Nevertheless, the potency of North Korea’s participation in the 2018 Olympics cannot be overstated. This brief calm could create space for further discussion outside the Olympic sphere, or it could perhaps build constructive conversation between the US and North Korea.
Speculation aside, one of the few predictable things about North Korea is its unpredictability. It would make little sense to launch an attack while its own athletes are present, but no one can be certain of its true intentions. With the Olympics drawing ever closer, this story is one to watch.