At some point in the coming months, a massive war could break out on the Korean Peninsula. Terrifying scenarios, including the devastating bombardment of one of the world’s largest cities and the use of nuclear weapons, are not out of the question. But first, there will be figure skating.
Geopolitical controversy and intrigue have frequently been a backdrop to the Olympics. But rarely has the event taken place at a time and location as fraught with tension and the potential for disaster as this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. And never have the games themselves played such an important role in the crisis.
After months of rising tensions created by North Korea’s evermore advanced nuclear and missile tests as well as the war of threats, taunts, and tweets between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, the past few weeks have given some genuine cause for hope that the Olympics might play a constructive role in avoiding catastrophe. In his New Year’s speech, Kim offered talks with the South and expressed openness to sending a delegation to the Olympics. Shortly afterward, in the wake of a call between Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the U.S. and South Korea agreed to postpone a planned military exercise until after the Olympics and Paralympics, which run through March 18.
North Korean and South Korean athletes will march together under a unified flag at the opening ceremony and will field a joint women’s ice hockey team. A delegation of musicians and dancers, including one of North Korea’s best-known singers, will perform at the games. Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s technical head of state (Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is the one with real power), will be in attendance as well.
A few factors could explain North Korea’s willingness to participate in the Winter Olympics. U.S.-led pressure in the form of economic sanctions probably has played a role in Pyongyang seeking dialogue: North Korean leaders would very much like to resume the trade and economic partnerships that were shut down by sanctions imposed on the nation for continuing its nuclear program. But the biggest factor is probably that after its recent intercontinental ballistic missiles tests (North Korean missiles can now probably reach the East Coast of the United States, though it’s not clear if they could carry a nuclear warhead that far), the country feels it has successfully developed a nuclear deterrent. Kim can afford to be magnanimous now.
If everything goes well at the Olympics, it could open the door to more dialogue between the two Koreas. That doesn’t mean concessions on the nuclear program: Now that Kim has nukes, he’s very unlikely to give them up or even discuss the idea. But discussions on other high-priority issues—such as the reunification of families separated since the Korean War—could help ratchet down the tension.
The United States is watching all this warily. While Trump and his officials have said different things at different times about their willingness to negotiate with North Korea (as well as their stance on South Korea doing so), the general message from Washington has been that the U.S. will not tolerate anything short of the full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and is willing to use force to make that happen if all else fails. The White House is reportedly considering options for a preventive, limited “bloody nose” strike against North Korea’s nuclear program, despite the fact that many experts, including in the Pentagon, fear this could lead to a wider war. Scholar Victor Cha was reportedly dropped from consideration for the position of ambassador to South Korea after sharing his concerns about the use of military force, potentially a sign of the administration’s seriousness about employing it.
Vice President Mike Pence will be at the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang and is sending a message to the North by traveling with the father of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who died under mysterious circumstances last year shortly after being released from 17 months of imprisonment in North Korea. U.S. officials have expressed concerns that North Korea is using the Olympics for propaganda purposes, though Pence has not ruled out the possibility of meeting with North Korean officials. For the past couple of weeks at least, President Trump’s Twitter feed has been uncharacteristically quiet on the subject of “Little Rocket Man.”
The leader with the most to gain and lose from the Olympics is Moon Jae-in. Moon was elected as South Korea’s president just last year after the impeachment and arrest of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, amid a bizarre corruption scandal. While Park was a conservative hard-liner whose father was a military dictator and whose mother was killed by a North Korean sympathizer, the liberal Moon came to power promising a more conciliatory approach to North Korea. Many of the conservative voters who backed Park remain deeply suspicious of Moon’s overtures to the North, and there have been public protests against the participation of North Korean athletes and performers at the games. Their anger is understandable: There’s a moral trade-off involved in giving one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships the opportunity to promote itself in front of a global audience.
But for the South Korean government, there are very practical reasons to give the North a stake in the games. “What South Korea wants is a peaceful Olympics. Having the North Koreans participate is an insurance policy that nothing terrible is going to happen,” says Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution. “It reduces the potential for a missile launch or another provocative action by North Korea.” Pak also suggests that the political blowback for Moon may be short-lived. “As soon as there’s a very emotional moment where [the athletes] are marching in together under the unification flag, that’s going to generate a lot of emotion and sympathy,” she says.
North Korea’s participation is not the only controversy worth keeping an eye on. The Japanese government has lodged a formal complaint about the flag being used by the joint Korean team, which features a map including the islands that are known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan but are claimed by both countries—a long-standing sovereignty dispute.
There had already been reports that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would skip the games over what the Japanese government views as excessive demands by the South Koreans to pay reparations to the Korean “comfort women” who were forced to work in brothels by the occupying Japanese military during World War II. Abe eventually announced he would attend the games and discuss the issue with Moon.
South Korea is also going through a moment of reckoning around the political power of the chaebol, the powerful family-run conglomerates like Samsung and Hyundai that dominated the country’s economy for decades and not surprisingly played a major role in bidding for and sponsoring this year’s Olympics. The corruption scandal that brought down Park was partly related to the political influence wielded by the chaebols, and the heir apparent of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, was just controversially released on a suspended jail sentence for his role in the affair. Given that Lee signed an agreement with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach to sponsor the Olympics through 2020, it’s going to be hard to separate the games from the most contentious issue in South Korean politics.
In many ways, these games will act as a bookend for an era of South Korean history that began with the Seoul Olympics of 1988. The IOC made the controversial decision in 1981 to award the Olympics to South Korea’s military dictatorship, just a year after the massacre of hundreds of protesters in the city of Gwangju. But by 1988, the country was transitioning to democracy, and the impending Olympics may have played a role in the government’s unwillingness to use force against pro-democracy protesters in 1987.
The Seoul Games were also a milestone of sorts for North Korea. The North Koreans had initially demanded to co-host those Olympics and were at one point offered the opportunity to stage three events. When talks with the South Koreans and the IOC broke down, the North Koreans boycotted the games and tried to get other members of the Communist bloc to join it in sitting out. Unlike the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, during which most Communist countries stayed home, there was little appetite for a boycott in 1988, at a time when both the Soviet Union and China were liberalizing their economies and normalizing relations with South Korea. Only Cuba joined North Korea’s boycott.
The Olympics, and the socialist countries’ related decision around the same time to normalize relations with Seoul, “allowed South Korea to emerge on the international stage as the real, legitimate Korea,” says Sergey Radchenko, a professor of international relations at Cardiff University who has written on North Korean history and the Seoul Games. Radchenko notes that a couple years after the games, the now-isolated North Koreans decided that they would have to develop a nuclear deterrent or else risk being swallowed up by their neighbor, à la East Germany.
Individual Olympiads often appear in retrospect to have been signposts for their geopolitical eras. The Seoul Games were the last Olympics of the Cold War and the waning influence of global communism was very much on display. In 1992, the United States, led by the basketball Dream Team, laid waste to the field in post-Franco Barcelona, Spain, ushering in an era in which the triumph of free market democracy looked inevitable. 2008 demonstrated the rise of China as a global superpower, while the 2014 Sochi Games, which corresponded with the fall of Ukraine’s government and immediately preceded the annexation of Crimea, marked the beginning of a newly contentious era in Russia’s relations with the West.
The Pyeongchang Games, happening at a time when North Korea has all but established itself as a nuclear power, South Korea’s economy and democracy appear to be on shakier foundations, and America is led by an unpredictable and aggressive president, feels like it could be another milestone Olympics. Whether it’s a prelude to peace and reconciliation or a brief lull before a terrifying new conflict won’t be obvious until well after the athletes return home.