The international community was shocked when Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, announced that he wanted to meet with South Korean leaders to discuss the possibility of both countries competing as a joint team in this upcoming winter Olympic games. The international community was positively astounded when both South Korea and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) agreed to Jong-un’s unexpected proposition.
The IOC has allowed 22 North Korean athletes to compete in the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games, starting Feb. 9. Ten of the athletes will compete in figure skating, short track speed skating, Alpine skiing, and cross-country skiing. The remaining 12 athletes will be competing with the South Korean women’s ice hockey team. According to IOC President Thomas Bach, the unified Korean team will be represented by the Korean Unification Flag and the anthem will be “Arirang,” a Korean folk song.
Although much of the international community is looking at this unified endeavor as a promising sign that North and South Korea are moving towards more diplomatic relations (despite the fact that they have remained at war since the 1953 Armistice), there has a been serious backlash from South Koreans. Many argue that the combined hockey team takes play-time from qualified South Korean athletes because there must be a South Korean athlete on the bench for every North Korean athlete on the ice.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has said that the 2018 Olympic Games will be an opportunity to improve relations after increasing tension over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, however the South Korean citizens do not seem to agree. In the time since the Olympic decision was announced, approval ratings for President Jae-in have plummeted to less than 60 percent for the first time since he came to power in May 2017.
South Korean and North Korean hockey coaches alike seem unsettled by the sudden decision. Pak Chol Ho, a North Korean coach commented that they “don’t have much time,” to prepare, while Coach Sarah Murray of the South Korean team is frustrated by the fact that all of her team’s hard work has suddenly been reduced to a political statement. “It’s hard because the players have earned their spots…and they just want to play the game,” Murray said.
Murray and her team are not the only people expressing a concern that Jong-un is using the Pyeongchang Games as a political tactic. Experts say that North Korea may be attempting to improve ties with the South as a way to weaken U.S.-led sanctions, or to potentially further their nuclear program with less resistance.
It seems rather pointed that North Korea issued a statement calling for Korean unification “without the help of other countries,” insisting that they would “smash” all challenges and specifying that military drills with “outside forces” were “unhelpful.” If this is all an elaborate ploy to weaken South Korea’s ties with the United States, it may be working, as South Korea convinced the U.S. to delay large-scale annual drills involving both countries until after the Olympics.
Fortunately, South Korea does not appear to be naively entering diplomatic relations with North Korea. The Southern government has prepared “all contingency scenarios” in case North Korea makes any “provocative moves” during the Olympics. And they will not be alone:; according to a White House official, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has said that he will use his attendance at the 2018 Winter Games to try to counter Jong-un’s efforts to “hijack” the games with “a propaganda campaign.”
Furthermore, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono has implored the international community to be “clear-eyed” about North Korea’s motivations. “I believe that North Korea wants to buy some time to continue their nuclear and missile programs…It’s not the time to ease pressure towards North Korea,” Kono said.
Kono’s sentiments are shared by Kim Hyon-hui, a former spy for North Korea who was integral to the bombing of a passenger jet in 1987. “Kim Jong-un is using the games to buy time for his nuclear program…It’s trying to escape the sanctions by holding hands with South Korea, trying to break free from international isolation,” Hyon-hui said. It is Hyon-hui’s belief that the North Korean regime is attempting to separate South Korea from the United States and to eventually take South Korea back under communist rule.
These various speculations aside, the IOC’s decision to allow North Korea to compete in the 2018 Olympic games raises some significant questions about the international community and its responsibility to monitor human rights. Although North Korea is a country shrouded in mystery, it is common knowledge that it is guilty of some horrendous human rights violation. Multiple North Korean defectors have reported public executions, prison camps, and a complete disregard for human life.
It is internationally recognized that the Olympic games are meant to celebrate peace, community, and humanity. The Second Fundamental Principle of Olympism, according to the Olympic Charter, is “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
Throughout history, the IOC has banned countries from the Olympic Games because the international community does not condone their treatment of their citizens (Apartheid-Era South Africa and post-WWII Germany are both excellent examples). While the athletic union between North and South Korea is exciting if it truly reflects a shared desire for peace, I am not comfortable placing that much faith in a country that does not allow its citizens the ability to travel freely or allow visiting journalists to travel without a “guide.” Furthermore, if the Olympic Charter is to be believed and the games are about preserving human dignity, North Korea and Kim Jong-un certainly do not meet the requirement.
Sources: ABC, BBC Sports, NBC, NPR, ESPN, New York Times, CNN, NBC, The Olympic Charter.