The North and South repeated the show of solidarity at the 2006 Olympics in Italy, only for North Korea to test its first nuclear weapon eight months later. They did it again during the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea, only for the North and South to exchange fire over the border days after the contest ended.
Klingner compared North Korea’s latest Olympian olive branch to a Trojan horse: “It’s like the security guard at the gates of the Olympic camp is radioing back to headquarters saying, ‘The North Koreans are pushing this large wooden horse.’ And you’re like, ‘Again?.’”
Most South Koreans support North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Games. But Moon Jae In’s more compliant decisions to gather Koreans under a unification flag for the Opening Ceremony and especially to create a combined Korean women’s ice-hockey team—which means a number of South Korean hockey players will be forced to cede ice time to their new North Korean teammates, at least three of whom must dress for every game—are less popular. (South and North Korean athletes will compete separately in all other sports.) The South Korean government has also been criticized for joining the International Olympic Committee in paying the North Korean delegation’s expenses. Conservative opponents of Moon, who tend to be more resistant to engagement with the North than Moon’s liberal wing, now ridicule the Games as the “Pyongyang Olympics,” in a reference to North Korea’s capital. The rebuttal is that desperate times call for less-than-ideal Olympics. The joint Opening Ceremony entrance and hockey team “aren’t about handing the Olympics over to North Korea,” an editorial in the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh argued. “They are a crucial effort to sustain the mood for talks about denuclearization even after the Olympics.”
Even if the costs of these concessions are worth the benefits—such as a literally peaceful Olympics and a de-escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula—the benefits will probably be short-lived, according to Andrew Bertoli, a research fellow at Dartmouth College who studies the relationship between international sports, nationalism, and interstate conflict. In the most extreme example, Adolf Hitler soft-pedaled his racism and militarism during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, only to soon initiate World War II and the Holocaust. Vladimir Putin waited until just after the Sochi Olympics to intervene militarily in Ukraine. “We shouldn’t fall for the temptation to see this short-term warming effect as an indication that these sporting events are actually leading to any type of long-term improvements in the behavior of these countries,” Bertoli explained recently on the Global Dispatches podcast.
North Korea’s long-term objectives with respect to the Pyeongchang Olympics, in fact, may be to probe pressure points in the U.S.-South Korean alliance and to weaken international support for severe sanctions imposed over its nuclear-weapons program. Already, the South Korean government has openly broken with the U.S. government in characterizing the Olympics as a potential opening to a diplomatic resolution of the nuclear crisis rather than a blip in the Trump administration’s escalating “maximum pressure” campaign against the North. And already, the South Koreans have waived or relaxed sanctions rules to facilitate North Korea’s participation in the Games. In a striking sign of the divide between the United States and South Korea, Vice President Mike Pence didn’t interact with the North Korean officials seated right behind him at the Opening Ceremony, let alone shake their hands like Moon did.