Editor's Note: Read all of The Atlantic’s Winter Olympics coverage.
Of all the arguments in favor of allowing North Korea to leap into the spotlight with South Korea at the Winter Olympics—what with its deceptively smiley diplomats and even more smiley cheerleaders and the world’s most celebrated winless hockey team—one hasn’t received much attention. “It’s tragic that people of shared history, blood, language, and culture have been divided through geopolitics of the superpowers,” Talia Yoon, a resident of Seoul, told The New York Times when the paper asked South Koreans for their thoughts on the rapprochement between North and South Korea at the Olympics. “Neither Korea has ever been truly independent since the division.”
In this telling, having Korean athletes march under a unification flag at the Opening Ceremony and compete jointly in women’s hockey isn’t just about the practical goal of ensuring the Games aren’t disrupted by an act of North Korean aggression, or the loftier objective of seizing a rare opportunity for a diplomatic resolution to the escalating crisis over Kim Jong Un’s nuclear-weapons program. It’s also about Koreans—for a couple surreal weeks in February, at least—plucking some control over that crisis from the superpowers that have been so influential in shaping it over the past year.
As Yoon suggested, great-power politics is the reason Korea was carved up in the first place. One August night in 1945, near the end of World War II, two young American Army colonels with nothing but a National Geographic map came up with a way to cede northern Korea to the Soviet Union and southern Korea to the United States for the purposes of accepting Japan’s sudden surrender. The goal was to prevent the Russians from overrunning Korea before the Americans could establish a presence on the peninsula, which had been unified for centuries but dominated by Japan since the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.
The officers, Dean Rusk and Charles Bonesteel, didn’t know much about Korea, but they did recognize that any partition should include the capital city of Seoul in the American zone of occupation. So they split the peninsula along the circle of latitude known as the 38th parallel, just north of Seoul and roughly in the middle of the peninsula. Their superiors quickly agreed to the proposal, as did the Soviets. Millions of Koreans, who had little say in the arbitrary separation of their people and provinces and waterways and highways, watched as their Japanese rulers were replaced by American and Soviet ones. Today Korea evokes the world’s most volatile conflict; back then, in the wake of a world-shattering war, it was something of an afterthought.
The 38th parallel was initially intended as a temporary division of liberated land among wartime allies—a joint trusteeship that would be replaced by a unified, independent Korea once the postwar chaos ebbed. But it instead hardened into a marker of rival spheres of influence among Cold War enemies, as the South held elections and the North founded the undemocratic Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. In 1950, Kim Il Sung, the leader of the DPRK, crossed the 38th parallel and invaded the Republic of Korea, sparking a war in which Russia and China sided with North Korea and America sided with South Korea. (The armistice ending the conflict shifted the border a bit from the 38th parallel to the Demilitarized Zone. As fate would have it, Rusk and Bonesteel later became lead actors in the drama they designed, serving as the secretary of state and the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, respectively, during a series of North Korean attacks in the late 1960s; Rusk was also a vocal advocate of U.S. involvement in the Korean War.)
Korean leaders have charted their own divergent paths ever since, with the South evolving into a flourishing capitalist democracy and the North into a totalitarian fortress state. But their superpower patrons have accompanied them along the way.
The current crisis, for example, is largely the result of Kim Jong Un rapidly developing his nuclear and missile arsenal with one provocative test after another, just as the Korean War was sparked by Kim Jong Un’s grandfather launching a massive military offensive against the South. Yet it has morphed into an international test of wills among the world’s major powers, with America pressuring Russia and China—at the United Nations Security Council, at Trump-Xi Mar-a-Lago meetings and on Trump-Putin phone calls—to impose more severe sanctions on North Korea.
The United States is urgently seeking to stop North Korea’s weapons program not because Kim Jong Un can nuke South Korea (he’s possessed that capacity for years), but because Kim is fine-tuning nuclear-tipped missiles that could one day reach the U.S. homeland. The Trump administration has installed a missile-defense system in South Korea and stressed its commitment to the U.S.-South Korea alliance, warning that the North could use its long-range nuclear capability to blackmail the United States into withdrawing protection for the South. But it has also demonstrated a remarkable degree of detachment from its ally, failing so far to appoint an ambassador to Seoul and repeatedly threatening, over the protestations of South Korean leaders, to forcefully prevent North Korea from obtaining the means of targeting Americans with nuclear weapons—even if that requires initiating another horrific war on the Korean peninsula. (One consequence of where Rusk and Bonesteel drew their line is that the modern metropolis of Seoul is well within range of North Korean artillery stationed at the border.) As the Republican senator and Trump confidant Lindsey Graham has stated, “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.”
The Chinese and Russians, for their part, are resisting severing their economic and diplomatic lifelines to North Korea not because of some special affection for the Kim regime or because they’re particularly pleased about the North’s nuclear ambitions, but because it suits their geopolitical aims. The Chinese government is worried that the collapse of the Kim dynasty would present a refugee crisis, loose nukes, and U.S. troops on China’s doorstep. (Many analysts interpret U.S. threats of military force as aimed primarily at the Chinese rather than the North Koreans, as part of an effort to convey to Beijing that failure to get tough on North Korea could produce the very chaos it’s trying to avoid.) The Russian government wishes to maintain North Korea as a counterweight to America in Northeast Asia and to uphold the international norm against regime change. “Russian and Chinese aversion to Kim Jong Un and his nukes is eclipsed by their shared animosity to what they perceive as the U.S. pretensions to hegemony,” the Russian scholar Artyom Lukin recently wrote.
With the arrival of the Winter Olympics, however, the war of words between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un and the clash of worldviews between America, China, and Russia have faded into the background. And South and North Korea have come to the foreground. North Korea’s participation in the Games was catalyzed by a New Year’s overture from Kim Jong Un, which followed a months-long campaign by the South Korean government and the International Olympic Committee, with little help from China or America, to persuade the North to attend the competition. In Pyeongchang, South Korean President Moon Jae In welcomed and shook hands with Kim Jong Un’s sister and his head of state, prompting Kim to invite Moon to a summit in Pyongyang. (Moon has yet to accept.) In this climate of tentative diplomatic progress, U.S. officials have played down military options for dealing with the North Korean nuclear program. Vice President Mike Pence, after consulting with Moon at the Olympics, even expressed openness to direct talks with North Korea following preliminary outreach by South Korea. “I hope that this will lead to an improvement in inter-Korean relations, and not only inter-Korean relations,” Moon said of the Olympic thaw.
It could lead to such an outcome, or not; the international crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons might soon return with a vengeance. The United States plans to slap North Korea with additional sanctions and resume joint military exercise with South Korea, which it suspended during the Olympics at South Korea’s behest. North Korea may carry out more missile and nuclear tests. In one discouraging sign, North Korean officials in Pyeongchang canceled a secret meeting with Pence. But if nothing else, the Olympics have served as a stark reminder to the world of the stakes that Koreans themselves have in how this international crisis ends.