The day after Otto Warmbier passed away, South Korean Cultural, Sports, and Tourism Minister Do Jong-hwan floated the idea of North and South Korea co-hosting some ski events during the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics, set to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Setting aside the poor timing of the suggestion, the proposal raises a series of questions about the viability and wisdom of the idea of co-hosting the Olympics with North Korea. But it may also be an idea that shouldn’t merely be dismissed.
Under Do’s proposal North Korea would host a yet-to-be determined number of ski events at the Masikryong ski resort. No real details are provided, suggesting that this might be just a trial balloon. To make the proposal feasible, questions related to logistics, fans, athletes, international sanctions, human rights, and the political dimensions of the proposal would need to be worked out. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), as well as the UN Security Council, would likely need to sign off on any agreement to move events to North Korea as South Korea’s original bid did not call for co-hosting the games.
Let’s start with the basic logistical question: could the North meet the minimal threshold of hosting some ski events? In 2014, the regime completed the construction of the Masikryong ski resort in hopes of attracting tourists. But while the resort exists, it’s unclear that the infrastructure is in place to provide adequate transportation and lodging to accommodate the athletes, their coaches, international television and media crews, and fans who purchased tickets to see any ski events that ultimately might be assigned to North Korea. The regime had hoped to attract 5,000 skiers a day when building the resort, but hosting the Olympics might strain any infrastructure now in place at Masikryong.
Most importantly, it is unclear that North Korea has the equipment to meet the standards necessary for Olympic competition. While the resort may be new, it reportedly has no snow plows to clear roads. Could the courses be kept in competitive condition? What happens if a major snowstorm blows in? Alternatively, could North Korea produce enough artificial snow if this winter turns out to be unseasonably warm?
Even if the logistics of moving events to North Korea could be worked out, would the fans, athletes and news organizations be safe? North Korea is still holding three Americans after the release of Warmbier. While some might dismiss concerns over safety as something that only relates to Americans traveling to North Korea, it was only earlier this year that North Korea prevented Malaysians from leaving as part of the dispute regarding Malaysia’s investigation into Kim Jong-nam’s death.
For fans who already purchased tickets, would they be compensated for having to travel to North Korea and seek new accommodations? How would fans who for safety or other reasons did not want to travel North Korea be compensated? Would South Korea offer them access to other events? If they choose to not to come at all, would South Korea compensate them for lost travel costs, having changed the rules after purchases were made? What of athletes who may not feel safe competing in North Korea or feel that they cannot compete in a country that commits gross human rights violations? Should they be forced into choosing to give up their Olympic dream? With the United States considering restrictions on travel to North Korea for U.S. citizens, this could be even more problematic for U.S. athletes.
Holding the Olympic in North Korea also raises human rights concerns. The UN Commission of Inquiry has documented human rights abuses that reach the level of crimes against humanity and NBC News has reported that miles of road leading up to the Masikryong ski resort were cleared by civilian workers who in some cases looked to be no older than 11 or 12. There is prior precedent of the international community showing concern for human rights violations in Olympic competition. For years South Africa was banned from competition due to apartheid and in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics human rights groups spoke out about China’s human rights violations and groups protested the Olympic torch relay.
Does North Korea’s human rights record justify letting it host some of the 2018 games? At a minimum it seems likely that human rights groups would protest the movement of Olympic events to North Korea and Olympic sponsors could face pressure to drop their sponsorship or face protests themselves. North Korea isn’t a market for major corporations, who will most likely want to avoid the bad press from being associated with North Korea.
Then there is the issue of sanctions. Moving events to North Korea may also run afoul of UN sanctions. North Korea was able to build the ski resort because each country has its own interpretation of the ban on luxury goods, but it was most likely built in violation of UN sanctions. While not every nation may agree on what items should be included on the luxury goods ban, should North Korea be rewarded for sanctions violations? More to the current situation, the IOC pays for each Olympic team’s travel and housing, as well as providing some funds to the national Olympic committee of the organizing nation. This would likely mean providing North Korea with cash for housing for the Olympic teams traveling to North Korea as well as providing a degree of financial support to the North Korea’s national Olympic committee for preparations. It seems unlikely that North Korea would host events without payment and this would most likely violate the UN’s provisions against that transfer of bulk cash to the regime unless the UN Security Council authorized it.
Lastly there is the issue of politicizing the Olympics. By calling for the move to ease political tensions on the peninsula, the games become politicized, even if unintentionally. North Korea would clearly try to use the games for political purposes domestically. The remote nature of the Masikryong ski resort means that any events transferred to North Korea would provide the regime significant domestic prestige while doing little to expose North Koreans to the outside world. There is also the challenge of North Korea’s weapons programs. It is difficult to see how the IOC could transfer events to North Korea if it continued to conduct missile tests and the exercise would come under fire if Pyongyang conducted a nuclear test before or shortly after the Olympics. On a more human level, could parts of the games be hosted in North Korea if they continued to hold the three Americans in custody?
Despite all of these concerns, there could be benefit to hosting major international sporting events in North Korea in the future. South Korean Moon Jae-in has proposed that North Korea be part of a regional bid for the 2030 World Cup. Offering North Korea the opportunity to host major international tournaments could serve as an additional carrot for it to undertake reform. Additionally, if events were held in major population centers where it would be hard to limit the interactions between average North Koreans and the athletes, fans, and reporters who would come there could be benefits in exposing North Korea to the outside world. In the case of the 2018 Winter Olympics there is little time, too little interaction, and too little change on North Korea’s part to make co-hosting viable. However, a similar proposal in the future should not be dismissed.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.