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The Peninsula

PyeongChang or Pyongyang Olympics?: The Politics of North Korean Participation in the Winter Olympics

Published January 25, 2018
Author: Robert King

By Robert King

For 17 days in February, Pyeongchang, South Korea, will host the 23rd Olympic Winter Games.  In the opening ceremony, which will take place in a new 35,000 seat arena built for the occasion, thousands of athletes who have qualified in some 15 Winter Olympic sports from 93 countries from around the world will march behind their national flags.  By Olympic tradition, the Greek athletes will be first to enter the stadium and last will be athletes representing the host country—South Korea (the Republic of Korea).  The host delegation, however, will not march behind the South Korean flag.  The South Korean host athletes, together with North Korean Winter Olympians, will march into the stadium behind a “unified Korea flag”—a white banner with a blue representation of the Korean Peninsula.  The athletes will be designated as representing “Korea”—not the “Republic of Korea” (the South) or the “People’s Democratic Republic of Korea” (the North).

This is not the first time that North and South Koreans have marched together behind the peninsula “unified Korea” flag under the name Korea in Olympic and other sports events.  In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, shortly after the first inter-Korean summit meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jong and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the two countries marched together in the Opening Ceremony.  They did so again in Athens in 2004 and the Turin Winter Olympics of 2006.  They last marched together in the Asian Winter Games of 2007 held in Changchun, China.

The unique feature of these Olympic Games, however, is that the North and South Korea will field a joint women’s hockey team.  Though athletes from North and South have marched together, this will be the first time that the two countries will entered a team with players from both countries.  The South Korean men’s hockey team will be manned only by South Korean athletes, and North Korea’s men’s team did not qualify for the games.  There will not be a combined men’s hockey team.  The joint women’s team has not been particularly popular in the South.  Protesters outside the Seoul rail station this week protested the joint team and burned a photograph of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il (an act which is a serious crime in North Korea).  Public opinion polling indicated that 73 percent of South Koreans do not support the joint women’s hockey team, although 80 percent do support North Korean participation in the games.

Clearly the participation of the North in the PyeongChang Games has benefits for both North and South since both have made a major effort to bring it about.

The advantages for South Korean President Moon Jae-in are, first, a desire to see the games go smoothly.  There has been concern with hostility and erratic behavior from the North, which could represent a threat to the success of the PyeongChang Games.  On September 3rd the North tested its most recent and largest nuclear device, which it said was a thermo-nuclear bomb.  At the end of November, its latest missile test indicated according to Defense Secretary James Mattis that the North has the capability to reach “anywhere in the world.”  Early indications are that Olympic ticket sales and bookings for lodging were below expectations, and questions were raised in the media about the prospects for the safety of the games.  The agreement of the Moon Administration in Seoul with Pyongyang for the North’s participation would assure a safe and secure atmosphere for the games.

A second consideration for Moon Jae-in was his ideological commitment to make progress on better relations with the North and make progress on Korean unification.  He had been Chief Presidential Secretary to President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), and played a key role in President Roh’s summit with North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il in October 2007.  After he was sworn in as President, Moon sought to cultivate good relations with the United States, making a visit to Washington shortly after he assumed office.  When this relationship with Washington was solid, he was interested in finding opportunities to improve relations with the North.  The Olympics provided an ideal opportunity for his outreach to the North.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was also interested in the improvement in relations with South Korea, and Moon found a willing partner.  For the North Korean leader, the relationship with the United States was deteriorating.  After he assumed leadership in the North in January 2012, his relationship with the United States was difficult.  After the new American president assumed office in early 2017, that relationship deteriorated.  President Donald Trump began calling the North Korean leader “Little Rocket Man” in September and Kim Jong-un called the American President a “Dotard.”  The exchanges between them further deteriorated as Trump threatened “fire and fury” and said “we’ll take care of that.”

Though Kim Jong-un responded in kind to Trump’s words, he also appears to understand that a conflict with the United States would result in the devastation of North Korea and the end his regime.  The approaching Winter Olympic Games gave him an opportunity to reach out to South Korea, which, for its own reasons, was seeking an opportunity to engage with the North.  For Kim, rapprochement with the South could begin to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea, and this would be helpful to the North.  That was probably one of his principal considerations.

Another benefit from Kim’s point of view was the opportunity to seize public attention.  Like Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un loves international attention, and he benefits from seizing the publicity initiative.  The offer to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics shifted Pyongyang back into the limelight.  The banning of Russia from participating as a country in the PyeongChang Games because of doping violations has all but disappeared as an issue in Olympic news.  North-South cooperation has now seized international media attention.

Kim has taken advantage of the international interest by taking further steps to call attention to the North.  Hyon Song Wol, a beautiful well-known North Korean pop icon who leads Pyongyang’s Samjion pop orchestra, has just completed a visit to the South to examine venues for performances there during the Olympic Games.  Her visit has created a media frenzy in the South.  The Northern delegation to the Olympics will include several hundred cheering fans as well as athletes, musicians, and the ubiquitous “minders” to be certain no visitors overstay.  The North has also used the North-South Olympic fever to call attention to its own Masikryong Ski Resort, where South Korean Olympic competitors will do some training.

The Olympic Moment may be just that.  There are real questions as to whether the thaw in Seoul-Pyongyang relations will bring Spring to the North-South relationship.  There is no sign that Kim is interested in any long-term improvement in relations with the South.  North Korean officials are still harshly dealing with any citizens in the North who dare to reach out to relatives in the South, and the changes involving Olympic participation are all carefully under control Pyongyang’s control.

For the North improving relations with the South may be an effort to seek some relief from the United Nations’ international sanctions and sanctions that individual countries have imposed against the North for its nuclear and missile programs.  In the era of the Sunshine policy when Moon Jae-in was a senior official in the previous President Roh Moo-hyun administration, substantial humanitarian aid and the Kaesong Industrial Complex were key elements in policy towards Pyongyang.  The North would certainly like to see a return to that generous policy.  There is certainly no indication whatever that the Kim Jong-un is willing to make any compromise in his hard line nuclear and missile program.

At the same time, however, any return to such policies will likely lead to severe strain in the relationship between Seoul and Washington.  The excitement of Northern and Southern Olympians marching together into the stadium in PyeongChang on February 9 may well turn into just another of the many short term hopeful steps that is dashed on the incompatibility of the Northern and Southern goals for unification.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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