The PyeongChang Olympics: Mirage or Miracle

Jesse Martin

22 March 2018

Head of the North Korean delegation Ri Son Gwon shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Cho Myoung-gyon at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone in South Korea on Jan. 9, 2018, image courtesy of  Fortune

Head of the North Korean delegation Ri Son Gwon shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart Cho Myoung-gyon at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone in South Korea on Jan. 9, 2018, image courtesy of Fortune


Recent talks on the Korean Peninsula have led some to believe that denuclearization can be spurred on by sports. Optimism may provoke that sort of statement; a realists' view evokes a different answer. On January 9th, South Korea and North Korea concluded talks, resulting in a plan to send a 550-member delegation of North Koreans to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games. North Korea has agreed to send athletes, officials, and a cheerleading squad and the two countries will even enter the Olympic ceremony under a unified flag. 

More importantly, these talks spark a return to communication after almost two years of silence. These talks come on the heels of the most unstable year on the Korean Peninsula since 1969, when North Korea shot down a US aircraft and boarded a US ship. North Korea’s relations are even worse with the United States. Since the United States entered the peninsula in 1945, North Korea has seen it as their ultimate adversary, blaming it for the division of Korea. Since then, North Korea has notoriously breached multiple agreements with the United States and South Korea even when relations seem to be improving. Most prominently, North Korea's nuclear proliferation has increasingly isolated it from all regional states, even China.

To correctly understand the ramifications (or lack thereof) from the Olympic Games, one must remember North Korea's increasing instability and hostility. While the headlines of North Korea participating in the Olympics and walking unified with South Korea may encourage some, the results will be minimal. It should be noted that North Korea tends to talk when they need money, and will walk when they get it. More importantly, Kim Jung Un has made it vehemently clear that nuclearization is the only way to protect itself. During his New Year's address, he proclaimed that "[the United States] will not dare to invade us because we currently have a powerful nuclear deterrent".

That said, the fact that communication has been established cannot be overstated. On this metric Korean relations are better than they have been in two years, and President Moon is warmer to negotiations than his impeached predecessor.  Unbelievably, the same man who once said he would unleash "fire and fire like the world has never seen" on North Korea, has even taken a different tone, at least for the moment - the United States has agreed to postpone regular joint military exercises with South Korea until the games conclude.

These talks pose a dichotomy between North Korea as a reneging and seemingly irrational actor and the talks as being a glimmer of hope for tumultuous Korean relationship. If the communication is genuine, it could act as a catalyst for a freeze-for-freeze agreement. This would result in the US and South Korea halting their military exercises and North Korea discontinuing its nuclearization program.

Currently, both the United States' alliance and China believe that denuclearization is the only option and once freeze-for-freeze is established, denuclearization talks can begin. On the other hand, if communication is not genuine and North Korea is only using the opportunity for cash, legitimacy, and some respect on the international stage, then the United States may coerce South Korea back into military aggression. Donald Trump may use North Korea’s deceit to evoke even more aggression, which North Korea would ultimately counter. This could escalate into a pre-emptive strike by the United States.

This option has been touted by most to be utterly disastrous. Supporters of it emphasize a ‘bloody nose' strike: the United States would destroy all of North Korea's launching sites, preventing it from retaliating, but would be unlikely to destroy every one, and North Korea, feeling an existential crisis may still attack. Even if this attack were conventional, North Korea could kill upwards of 300 000 South Koreans in a matter of days due to Seoul's proximity to the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

One policy suggestions that seems much more plausible and peaceful is nonproliferation. This builds on a freeze-for-freeze agreement to arms controls measures that would allow North Korea to exist as a nuclear power, but would be subject to inspections and restrictions on continued testing of their technologies. This would stabilize the Korean peninsula and prevent North Korea from selling its technologies to other United States' adversaries. The United States has dealt with nuclear Russia and China; there is no reason why it cannot live with a nuclear North Korea.

Ultimately, the consequences of North Korea’s participation in the Olympics will not be understood until long after the games have concluded. Renewed communication does provide positivity, but not optimism, North Korea is far too unpredictable to trust yet.