Why the Olympics matter when it comes to North Korea

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A man walks by the official emblem of the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games in downtown Seoul on Dec. 29. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

After months of increasing tension, North Korea decided Wednesday to reopen a long-suspended hotline used for communicating with the South — potentially marking a thaw that could lead to Pyongyang sending a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics, due to be held next month in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The presence of North Korean officials and athletes at the games may calm jitters about potential missile tests or worse occurring during the events, which will be held just 50 miles from the demilitarized zone that divides the Korean Peninsula.

There’d also be a symbolic element to North Korea’s participation in the games. Pyongyang has long used sporting achievements at international events to bolster its reputation abroad. Both Koreas also have used Olympic events to make gestures toward reconciliation, even marching together under a shared flag at a number of events.

But critics argue that after a year of provocation, North Korea cannot be trusted to compete. In a tweet Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) called on South Korea to reject Pyongyang’s overtures to join the games, arguing that it “would give legitimacy to the most illegitimate regime on the planet.”

North Korea’s history at the Olympics

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Despite Graham’s concerns, North Korea has a long history at the Olympics. Pyongyang has sent athletes to every Summer Olympics since 1972, except for two it boycotted — the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul.

The country has won 54 medals at Summer Olympics, including 16 gold medals, with weightlifting and wrestling its most successful sports. Given the country’s small size and small gross domestic product, its performance has been relatively successful.

Part of North Korea’s success in the games no doubt comes from sheer political will. Successful athletes often enjoy well-funded facilities and relatively luxurious lifestyles, compared with their peers, North Korea analyst Christopher Green told WorldViews last year, although the risk of defection means that they often lead cloistered lives while in the Olympic Village.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a mountainous country with cold winters, North Korea has performed far worse in Winter Olympics, gaining only three medals total despite competing in eight games since 1964. The only North Korean athletes to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang are two figure skaters, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik.

A symbol of reconciliation — but also mistrust

For some South Koreans, there has long been a hope that North Korea might attend the games. This was partly out of  concern that North Korea might disrupt the event in some way if they it was not a part of it. Ticket sales for the Pyeongchang games have been lagging, a point some attributed to concern about the risks posed by North Korea.

Such concerns are understandable: A year before the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air flight, killing everyone on board, in an apparent attempt to disrupt it. The presence of North Korean athletes or a delegation should deter the risk of such events.

But there was also a hope that North Korea’s participation could provide a route toward reducing tensions on the peninsula. North Korea and South Korea have marched together in a number of Olympic Games opening ceremonies under what is called the Unification Flag, designed to represent all of Korea, though the countries still competed separately.

Even though these gestures have faltered in recent years (plans to form a joint delegation for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics fell apart because of North Korean demands), the potential power of the Olympics for the Koreas was shown by the huge response in 2016 when a North Korean gymnast posed for a picture with a South Korean athlete.

But many worry that Pyongyang will use its participation in the games to attempt to extract concessions from Seoul. Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst who is now an expert on North Korea at the Heritage Foundation, said that the joint procession at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney may have looked hopeful, but behind the scenes things were different.

“North Korea had demanded and received a secret payment from Seoul, payment for the North’s uniforms, and agreement that the North’s delegation would not be outnumbered by the South’s — necessitating many South Korean athletes and coaches from not marching into the stadium as part of the Korean entourage,” Klingner wrote in an email.

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Lee Eun-Ju of South Korea, right, takes a selfie with Hong Un Jong of North Korea at the Rio Olympic Arena in Rio de Janeiro, on Aug. 8, 2016. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

What could go wrong?

Although both North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have suggested a willingness to cooperate on the Olympics in the past few days, there may be a lot of details to work out still. Technically, North Korea has missed the deadline to send a delegation, although the International Olympic Committee said Tuesday that it considered the invitation to Pyongyang still open for the time being.

The two Koreas would need to meet to decide how North Korea’s participation in the event would proceed; the South has proposed a meeting next week in the truce village of Panmunjom. Experts suggest that even that meeting would need to be carefully arranged because of protocol concerns.

Sticking points at the talks might include any concessions demanded by the North Koreans, such as the canceling or delaying of planned U.S.-South Korea military exercises to be held next year. Other factors, including the size of a delegation and the route it would take into the country, could throw up unexpected road blocks. If talks were to collapse, it could add to the already tense situation on the peninsula.

Writing for the BBC, North Korean leadership expert Michael Madden said that North Korean participation in the games could provide an incremental step that could be built upon.

“For Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae-in, and to those who follow the peninsula closely, DPRK participation will be an excellent public relations opportunity, and also cause a temporary pressure drop in neighborhood geopolitical tensions,” wrote Madden, a visiting scholar of the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University.

But as the United States and its allies propose putting ever more pressure on North Korea, others may balk at decreasing the country’s isolation without a tangible benefit. Klingner compared the situation to the restrictions placed upon apartheid-era South Africa.

“As the world seeks to isolate and pressure North Korea for its repeated violations of U.N. resolutions, it should ask itself why Pyongyang is still allowed to participate in the Olympics but Pretoria was shunned,” Klingner wrote.

Simon Denyer contributed to this report.

Read more:

What made North Korea’s weapons programs so much scarier in 2017

Why haven’t sanctions on North Korea worked? Two very different theories.

South Korea’s Winter Olympics sets off some jitters with just 100 days to go



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