Editor's Note: Read all of The Atlantic’s Winter Olympics coverage.
After a year of fire-and-fury threatening and nuclear-button measuring, of Little-Rocket-Man and mentally-deranged-dotard name-calling, of apocalyptic warnings about another war on the Korean peninsula, it was heartening to witness. There they were, the South and North Korean Olympic teams marching together in sparkling white jackets behind a flag symbolizing Korean unity, as the soulful notes of the Korean folk song “Arirang” played and top South and North Korean officials warmly greeted each other in the stands, during an Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang extolling peace.
It felt wonderful. But it also felt … wrong.
South Korea is hosting its first Winter Olympics and only its second Olympics ever. There are few experiences as special as walking in last at the Opening Ceremony of an Olympics your country is hosting, when you have worked so hard to be there and your country has worked so hard to stage the spectacle. “It is so rare in an athlete’s life that you get to even compete in an Olympic Games. It’s even rarer to compete in an Olympics in your home country,” the American freestyle skier Tracy Evans once noted. On Friday, South Korean athletes and coaches concluded the Parade of Nations bearing a flag that isn’t theirs, even if it represents a dream that is. They shared that exceedingly rare moment with athletes and coaches from North Korea, which did nothing to organize the event, missed the registration deadline for sending a delegation, and boasts only two athletes who qualified for the competition on merit. (The International Olympic Committee, which along with the South Korean government spent months trying to convince North Korea to come to the Games, made exceptions so that the North could compete.)
The Olympics’ promotion of world peace has always been more of an aspiration than an actuality. George Orwell had a point when he complained about the fierce nationalism aroused by international sports contests. But the Olympics are at least predicated on peaceful competition and playing by the rules (see: the Olympic Athletes from Russia). And while North Korean athletes might well exhibit, as the head of the International Olympic Committee put it, how to “live together in peace, respect, and harmony,” their leaders have not. The last time South Korea hosted the Olympics, in 1988, the North Korean government tried to spoil the Games before they began by blowing up a South Korean airplane and its 115 passengers. This time—in violation of United Nations resolutions and international law and norms—the North Korean government has spent the past year test-firing ballistic missiles that can target the whole world, testing a nuclear weapon 17 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, killing off Kim Jong Un’s half-brother with a chemical weapon in a Malaysian airport, and threatening to “sink” Japan and reduce the United States to “ashes.” Yet here was the North Korean Olympic team, at the peak of festivities in Pyeongchang, basking in the spotlight.
There are good reasons to applaud North Korea’s presence at this year’s Olympics. The country’s participation—prompted by an overture in a New Year’s speech in which Kim Jong Un also happened to threaten nuclear war—makes a North Korean provocation or act of aggression during the competition unlikely; saber-rattling quieted in the lead-up to the Games, with North Korea holding off on weapons tests and the United States and South Korea postponing joint military exercises. The North’s involvement in the Games has, in South Korean President Moon Jae In’s words, served to “warm solidly frozen South-North ties,” resulting in direct talks and the reopening of a communications hotline between the two sides. At the Opening Ceremony, Moon made history by shaking hands with Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s head of state, and Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister and the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit South Korea. (When terrorism failed to disrupt the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, North Korea boycotted the event.)
But we’ve seen this Opening Ceremony before. Nine times before, to be precise. The North and South Koreans have marched in unison at nine previous international athletic competitions, beginning with the 2000 Olympics in Australia. Just months after a major summit between the leaders of North and South Korea, their respective teams strode out into the Opening Ceremony in Sydney in matching uniforms to the tune of “Arirang” and rapturous applause from the crowd. (Sound familiar?) Behind the pretty picture was a messy story, the Korea analyst Bruce Klingner recalled at a recent Olympics briefing organized by the Center for the National Interest: North Korea had insisted that South Korea pay for its uniforms and reduce the number of South Korean marchers so that the North Koreans wouldn’t be outnumbered. The South Korean government meanwhile had secretly paid the Kim regime hundreds of millions of dollars to attend the earlier summit.
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.
It’s hard not to cheer the sight of North and South Koreans parading as one below an image of a Korean peninsula made whole, just 50 miles from one of the most militarized borders on earth. But North Korea has made it a little easier on everyone by sending a massive squad of young, female cheerleaders to the Olympics as part of its deal with South Korea. “It will be absurd, in Pyeongchang, to watch one of the world’s most repressive, totalitarian nations attempt to deploy two hundred and thirty smiling women as a diplomatic shield,” Jia Tolentino writes in The New Yorker. “The underlying idea is so ridiculous that it’s almost thrilling. Female youth, beauty, and obedience is supposed to be that distracting—a spectacle that could even dissipate thoughts of nuclear war.”
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