The Korean Olympian compromise is fool’s gold
By JAMES GIBNEY | Bloomberg View | Published: January 19, 2018
For anyone who thinks it’s a major diplomatic breakthrough to have the two Koreas march under one flag at the Winter Olympics and field a joint women’s ice hockey team … well, I have a DMZ to sell you.
Yes, next month’s opening ceremony will mark the first sporting event in a decade where the two sides have entered under one banner. But they’ve done it eight times before. And they’ve fielded joint teams twice before.
The last time was in 1991: That brief shining moment was followed by, among other things, six nuclear tests and numerous missile launches, territorial incursions, the shooting of a South Korean tourist, naval skirmishes, the sinking of a South Korean corvette by a North Korean submarine, the shelling of South Korean territory that killed four, attacks on South Korean soldiers patrolling the Demilitarized Zone — not to mention repeated rhetorical barrages slurring South Korea’s elected leaders and representatives in the most visceral terms.
This is not to say the whole thing is meaningless — even if it doesn’t lead to deeper rapprochement, it may still provide a tactical victory for both sides.
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea ran for office pledging to pursue dialogue and reconciliation, and this certainly amounts to that. He also bought himself a little insurance against North Korean disruption during the games, a threat delivered by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in his New Year’s address, when he warned that “As long as this unstable situation, which is neither wartime nor peacetime, persists, the North and the South cannot ensure the success of the scheduled events.”
For his part, Kim gets a propaganda win. South Koreans will see another, more positive side of their neighbor to play on their understandable yearning for an eventual peaceful reunification of the peninsula. Kim, building on what has at times been a relatively vigorous cultural diplomacy campaign, can spin North Korea’s participation back home as a sign of its international acceptance.
But in the bigger picture, there are several reasons that this fluttering of Olympic spirit may not amount to anything greater. Kim’s overarching goal is undoubtedly to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. Yet for all Moon’s hopes of reconciliation, he cannot afford to alienate the U.S., which guarantees South Korea’s security. Nor can he go beyond the bounds of South Korean public opinion. Not only is the public blasé about the Olympics in general, it has responded coolly to this outbreak of sportpolitik. (Support for joint teams and subsidies for North Korea’s delegation is tepid; one South Korean hockey fan has even filed a complaint with a human rights watchdog, arguing that joint teams infringe on the rights of South Korean athletes.)
At the same time, Kim has no incentive to give up his nuclear weapons, which his regime has decided are critical to its survival.
Still, give Kim props for playing a weak hand well. To understand why, look back at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. At the time, the awarding of the games to Seoul was seen as the coming-out party for a military dictatorship seeking to change its spots and win international acceptance. President Chun Doo-hwan, who had seized power in 1980, was worried about the possibility of a North Korean disruption of the games and a possible boycott by socialist countries. (Remember, Olympic boycotts were a thing back then.)
Then-dictator Kim Il Sung and the North Koreans, meanwhile, were worried about the prospect of being outshone, if not humiliated, by their neighbor. They proposed to divide up the games 50-50 between Seoul and Pyongyang. After negotiations brokered by the International Olympic Committee, the North was on the brink of a deal that would have granted it the hosting of two sports, some other shared competitions with the South, and an organizing committee — enough for them to claim that they were also “hosting” the Olympics. But the North Korean delegation balked, and the deal went away.
One of many ugly incidents that followed was the North’s 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner and its stoking of disturbances in the South, where students and dissidents were all too willing to demonstrate on the North’s behalf. Ultimately, North Korea boycotted the games, leaving it isolated and the South triumphant, having won prestige and new ties with the socialist bloc in the bargain. By that yardstick, Kim Jong Un has already done better than his grandfather, the revered Great Leader.
For some analysts, the 1988 Olympics amount to one of the great might-have-beens on the still bitterly divided peninsula. As Sergey Radchenko of Cardiff University put it, if the North had participated in the games, “it may well have been possible to avoid the kind of militant isolation that North Korea found itself in after its sound defeat at the hands of the South.” As pretty as it is to think so, you can’t turn back the clock. Still, even if the Pyeongchang Games next month don’t produce a breakthrough, they may forestall a blow-up, and that’s worth a cheer, if not two.
James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View. He was a foreign service officer and a speechwriter for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake and President Bill Clinton.