February 26, 2018
North Korea’s last-minute decision to participate helped the PyeongChang Olympics become an arena for geopolitics.
The PyeongChang Winter Olympics came to a close Sunday after 17 days of memorable competitions among the world’s top athletes. As a sporting event, the quadrennial games were successful in many respects.
Most of all, the PyeongChang Olympics — the largest-ever Winter Games that drew 2,920 participants from 92 countries — proceeded without any big hitch, except an outbreak of a stomach virus.
The organizers made sure there was no major mishap in the operation of events for 15 sports that were staged in three major host cities — PyeongChang, Gangneung and Jeongseon in Gangwon Province.
Competition venues and related facilities, like athletes’ villages in the host cities, were well managed. Also praiseworthy is the devotion of 16,000 volunteers and thousands of security staffers.
Indeed, South Koreans may take pride in being model participants in the Olympic movement, having successfully organized both the Summer and Winter Olympics. South Korea, which hosted the 1988 Seoul Olympics, is the eighth country in the world to have organized both Summer and Winter Games.
Team Korea, which consisted of 145 athletes in 15 sports, also put up an impressive performance, further lifting the pride of South Koreans who were united in rallying behind their national athletes. It failed to reach its goal of taking fourth place in the overall medal count, but few South Koreans cared much about the medal ranking.
Some like the women’s curling team and men’s skeleton gold medalist Yun Sung-bin rose to national stardom. Female curlers’ stunning performance especially captured the hearts of many Koreans.
North Korea and geopolitics
North Korea’s last-minute decision to participate helped the PyeongChang Olympics become an arena for geopolitics as well, raising both hopes and concerns regarding the crisis stemming from the North’s nuclear and missile threats.
The positive side was that the North’s participation — none of its 22 athletes in five sports showed any impressive performance — and the visit of a high-powered government delegation raised hopes for a thaw between the two Koreas.
The North raised the stakes by sending Kim Yo-jong, the sister of its leader Kim Jong-un. The reconciliatory mood, which was backed by the visit of hundreds of North Koreans belonging to an art troupe, cheering squad and taekwondo demonstration team, reached its peak when Kim Yo-jong met Moon and extended her brother’s invitation to visit Pyongyang.
However, the negative side of the latest developments was that the North was seen making a peace overture toward Seoul as part of its ploy to buy time, drive a wedge between the South and the US and cause cracks in international sanctions against its nuclear and missile programs.
There were many signs that the US shares such concerns. US Vice President Mike Pence, who talked more about pressure on the North than dialogue during his visit to PyeongChang, said last week that Kim Yo-jong is a “central pillar of the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet and an evil family clique.”
Trump’s daughter Ivanka also emphasized keeping up “maximum pressure” on the North in a meeting with President Moon at Cheong Wa Dae. On the other hand, the South Korean leader focused on improving relations between the two Koreas and between the North and the US.
The most palpable sign that the US will not be swayed by the recent thaw in inter-Korean relations came through Washington’s announcement of latest sanctions against Pyongyang. Described by Trump as the “heaviest-ever” sanctions on a foreign country, the decision blacklisted 28 vessels, 27 shipping and trade companies and one individual.
One more negative aspect of the North’s peace overture — and the Moon administration’s obsession with improving relations with the North — is that the recent developments are only widening division in the South over how to deal with the North.
A prime example is the strife between the Moon government and the ruling party and opposition parties and conservatives, over the visit of Kim Yong-chol — a North Korean official believed to be behind several past military provocations against the South — for the Olympic closing ceremony.
One cannot but wonder whether the bickering South Koreans are the same South Koreans who cheered their national athletes together during the Olympics. The political legacy of the PyeongChang Olympics is certain to be different from that of a successfully organized sporting event.
(This article originally appeared in the Korea Herald)