North Korea Playing Games with Winter Olympics

COMMENTARY Missile Defense

North Korea Playing Games with Winter Olympics

Feb 9th, 2018
COMMENTARY BY
Peter Brookes

Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs

Peter helps develop and communicate The Heritage Foundation's stance on foreign and defense policy through his research and writing.
Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Opening ceremony – Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium- Pyeongchang, South Korea – February 9, 2018. JORGE SILVA/REUTERS/Newscom

Key Takeaways

Though the Winter Olympic Games will provide a welcome pause in North Korean trouble-making, the break in Pyongyang’s belligerence will only be temporary.

You could say that Pyongyang has gotten a lot just by showing up in Pyeongchang.

Once the Olympics are over in a few weeks, it’s likely to resume its menacing missile launches — or worse.

Newsflash: Though the Winter Olympic Games, opening tomorrow in Pyeongchang, South Korea, will provide a welcome pause in North Korean trouble-making, the break in Pyongyang’s belligerence will only be temporary.

That is, about the length of time of the Olympic Games.

Sure, the hopeful sight of North Korean and South Korean athletes marching together, carrying a blue and white “unification” flag, will undoubtedly warm the hearts of many spectators both on and off the Korean Peninsula.

Indeed, it’ll be the highlight of the opening ceremony.

And there’s no question that this sort of sport spectacle embodies the eternal Olympic spirit, where the beauty of athletic competition among nations temporarily transcends the ugliness of day-to-day international politics.

But that’s not North Korea’s real “game” at the 2018 Games.

Naturally, with the attendance of its ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong Nam, Pyongyang wants the global audience to believe that it’s essentially co-hosting the Winter Olympics alongside Seoul — which spent billions of dollars developing the venue.

A darn good deal if you can get it.

Pyongyang also gets to try to showcase its political system through the performance of its state-sponsored athletes (and cheerleaders), akin to what the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc tried to do during the Cold War to “prove” the superiority of the communist way of life.

Considering the amount of press Pyongyang has gotten already over its attendance at the Winter Games, it’s easily conceivable that the highly competitive North Korean figure-skating pair of Ryom-Kim could become media “darlings” if they do well.

Perhaps, even if they don’t do well.

Plus, the appearance of North and South Korean athletes competing on the same team (in women’s hockey) — or the visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the 2018 Games — could soften public opinion toward the North in the South.

The goal of this North Korean “charm offensive,” of course, is to potentially push Seoul — and others — to reconsider their current hard-line policies toward Pyongyang over its nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs.

Indeed, from a policy perspective, the government of South Korean President Moon Jae In is more inclined towards engagement with the Kim regime than the political and economic isolation and military deterrence it has reluctantly adopted.

Along the same line, North Korea also hopes that its participation in the Pyeongchang Games will drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States, putting pressure on the political-military alliance that has prevented another Korean War for nearly 65 years.

You could say that Pyongyang has gotten a lot just by showing up in Pyeongchang.

But it’s unlikely that the Olympic-sized honeymoon between North and South will last, if history is any guide. Previous joint sporting event appearances (such as at the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics) ultimately failed to improve relations.

In fact, today, North Korea will reportedly hold a missile-studded military parade in Pyongyang just to show it hasn’t gone soft — in case anyone thought that was possible. Once the Olympics are over in a few weeks, it’s likely to resume its menacing missile launches — or worse.

With those sobering thoughts in mind, let the “games” at the Winter Olympics begin.

This piece originally appeared in The Boston Herald on 2/8/18