February 8, 2018
The winter Olympics is due to begin in PyeongChang, South Korea on Friday amid fanfare and controversy.
Once again, the two Koreas will march under a unified flag signaling a period of détente that seems fragile in the face of nuclear tests and Washington’s grandstanding.
The Olympics will be the second time such an event is hosted by South Korea and while rapprochement will be a major talking point heading into the winter games the mood is very different from the last time the Olympics were held on the peninsula.
A troubled past
Proceedings leading up to the Seoul Olympics in 1988 were clouded by the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 by North Korean agents.
Under direct orders from Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, the agents blew up the plane to try and prevent the summer games from taking place.
Kim Jong-il had failed to secure a joint bid to host the Olympics and struck back hoping to dent the prestige of Seoul hosting the games.
The two agents responsible for the bombings were tracked down and while one managed to commit suicide, the other eventually confessed to the attack and to being a North Korean agent.
Condemnation was swift with the United States calling the attack a terrorist action and placing North Korea on its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
An uncertain future
30 years later and tensions on the Korean peninsula remain. Nuclear and missile tests by the North have increasingly agitated the US and its partners within the region. The North’s two main international allies, Russia and China, have both condemned the tests.
North Korea, undeterred, has said it would continue its missile program. Experts say that the country is months, if not weeks, away from developing a ballistic missile that can hit the continental United States.
In response US President Donald Trump has upped his rhetoric and called for a grand military parade to rival that of Pyongyang’s. The US President has said that his nuclear button is bigger than his rival’s, that he would increase the United States’ nuclear stockpile, the first increase in decades, and called for more sanctions against the hermit kingdom.
An unexpected thaw
While South Korea has traditionally acquiesced to the State Department’s policies, under new president Moon Jae-in, Seoul has forged its own path in its dealing with the North. While Trump was publicly considering military options against Pyongyang, Seoul opened direct lines of communications to its northern neighbor. It invited the north to participate in the upcoming games under a joint flag and to field a unified team.
A member of Kim Jong-Un’s inner circle, his sister Kim Yo-jong, will attend the Olympics as part of the north’s high-level delegation.
“Kim Yo-jong is a messenger for Kim Jong-un. She is expected to deliver the exact intentions and thoughts of the North Korean leader about the regime‘s approach to the nuclear issue,” Kim Yeon-chul, professor at Inje University told The Korea Herald.
“The fact Kim Yo-jong is coming here proves that Kim Jong-un views the current situation very seriously and seeks to ease sanctions on the backdrop of the Olympics,” he said.
“Kim Jong-un might be thinking that it would be good to talk to the US, but if it doesn’t happen, he would at least seek to improve relations with South Korea.”