Will the World Win Gold in the 2018 Olympics?

Written by: Alyse Samoray

The 2018 Winter Olympics opened in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on February 9, 2018, with a historic moment: South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong.  Along with 500 other North Koreans, Kim Yo-jong, who has been described as a close confidant to her brother, becomes the first member of the Kim family to visit South Korea since the Korean War. The North Korean announcement to attend the Olympics came after “months of tension – and the threat of possible nuclear war – with the United States and South Korea, the host country.” In fact, the tensions among the countries were so high, athletes, fans, and other nations were considering not competing in the 2018 games due to safety concerns. Now, not only is North Korea participating, but the Koreas have formed a joint women’s hockey team and marched under a unified flag. 

Following the original Greek promotion of the Olympics as “Peace Games,” South Korea used the conflict to help win the bid to host the 2018 Games seven years ago. Playing the proximity to North Korea to their advantage, South Korea emphasized the diplomatic importance of Pyeongchang hosting the Games: it could be used to  ease tensions between the two countries that are still technically at war  South Korea wanted to “use the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang as a way to engage with North Korea, to show the world – and the United States in particular – that old-fashioned diplomacy still has a role to play, even with Kim Jong-un’s belligerent regime”.  The next two weeks will reveal if the global sporting event can ease the tensions among North Korea, South Korea, and the United States, and what that means if the United States does not embrace South Korea’s rhetoric and continues on a path toward “fire and fury”.

After failing to win the Olympics for his native Germany, Thomas Bach, now president of the International Olympic Committee, turned his focus to include North Korea in the 2018 Winter Games, with the hope of easing tensions and expanding the nuclear dialogue. Starting at Rio in 2016, Mr. Bach began to court North Korea’s participation, even offering to provide financial and logistical support. At the end of the day, actually getting North Korea to the Games took over two years of work and included the help of the United States, South Korea, and China. 

Although Mr. Bach reached out to the United States in June of 2017, it wasn’t until President Moon reached out to President Trump in November that the United States announced it would send a high-level delegation to the Winter Olympics. Then in December, the Trump administration sent Jeffrey Feltman, a senior official at the United Nations, to North Korea for meetings with diplomats where they discussed the North’s participation in the Olympics and “gently suggested that the world would be paying attention to whatever Mr. Kim does next”. The United States agreed to delay planned military exercises, and North Korea announced they would attend the Games. Yet, even after helping, the United States expressed skepticism of North Korea’s motives. The Trump administration did not want to look like it was softening its stance on North Korea. Instead, the United States defended their choice to delay the military exercises by stating that South Korea needed to focus on the security of the Olympics, and Vice President Mike Pence stated that America “will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message of the Olympic Games”. As a show of defiance, Vice President Pence did not stand when the joint Korean team entered the opening ceremony. He also did not shake hands with the North Korean head of state, Kim Yong-Nam, during the Olympic reception nor acknowledge Kim Yo-jong, who sat behind him during the opening ceremony. 

As tensions have been escalating among the United States, South Korea, and North Korea over the last year, the United States has been embracing tougher sanctions and harsher language towards North Korea in the hopes that North Korea will give up its nuclear arsenal In previous public announcements, the United States declared that they would sit down to talk with North Korea only after they agreed to give up its nuclear arsenals. This led to disagreements between the Trump administration and South Korea’s Moon, who favored diplomatic discussions without conditions.  Even more interestingly, after Vice President’s Mike Pence refused to acknowledge the North Korean delegation during the opening ceremony and caused an international stir, it was reported that Pence was scheduled to meet with a high-level North Korean delegation during the Games. However, North Korea backed out at the last minute and a meeting has yet to be rescheduled. 

Meanwhile, at a luncheon on February 10 hosted by Moon Jae-in, Kim Yo-jung  delivered a message from Kim Jong-un inviting President Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang. President Moon conveyed an interest in the summit and concluded the Koreas should work together to ensure the appropriate measures are met so a meeting can come to fruition.  expressed the desire to include the United States in the talks. Nevertheless, even though the United States was scheduled to have a meeting with North Korea themselves, the administration still plans to place the most aggressive sanctions on North Korea in history. It does not seem like the United States is softening on its stance in order to engage North Korea. Instead, the Trump administration has repeated it’s tough message that North Korea must either give up its nuclear arsenal or face the American wrath. By backing out of the scheduled meeting with the United States, it seems North Korea is more interested in engaging South Korea without American influence. With the two countries’ diverging stances, South Korean engagement with North Korea in discussions might harm their relationship with the U.S. Additionally, if the United States does not participate in the discussion, it could lead to a decreasing American sphere of influence in the region.

Using sports as a means for diplomatic discussions is not new. During the 2000 and 2004 Summer Games and the 2006 Winter Games, both North and South Korea marched under a unified flag, but nothing came of it, which some analyst predict will be the result of the 2018 Games. here are three likely outcomes: 1.) no change in policy, 2.) military exercises and harsh exchanges continue, or 3.) there will be a policy breakthrough and development. Although the ping-pong diplomacy that was used during the 1970s between the United States and China proved successful, experts believe that policy development is the least likely here. Nonetheless, given the heightened tensions over the last year, the meeting between the leaders is historic. The Pyeongchang Games will be remembered by “whether they generate enough momentum in the race to prevent a military showdown between the United States and North Korea after the Games end.” Maybe analysts will be wrong and like the ping-pong diplomacy of the 1970s, the 2018 Winter Games will fuel diplomacy between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. However, if North Korea is only willing to engage with South Korea and not the United States, it would create a new dynamic – as the United States would not be included because of North Korean interests. Only time will tell what happens after the Games.