January 1, 2018, was a big day for most South Koreans. Kim Jong-un, the leader of neighboring North Korea, usually makes a speech on New Year’s Day each year, and South Koreans get bombarded with news covering what he says every year. However, this year there was added significance, because South Korea is set to host the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in February. Furthermore, a recent proposal by South Korean President Moon Jae-in to invite the North to participate in the Games heightened the anticipation as the South awaited Kim’s response. Also, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), had reached out to North Korea and pledged to cover its athletes’ costs if they joined the event.
In his address, Kim signaled the possibility of the North’s participation, which was followed by the first inter-Korean talks in nearly two years. The next day, most of the editorials in the major South Korean newspapers gave the Moon administration a thumbs-up for successfully bringing the stubborn Pyongyang regime to the negotiating table, but also expressed worries over the president’s wishful thinking. Kim had just said yes to the PyeongChang deal, not to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.
Meanwhile, thanks to that “yes” from the North Korean leader, the Winter Olympic Games soon to be held in PyeongChang, which is ironically often confused with Pyongyang (the North Korean capital), enjoyed some time in the global spotlight. At the same time, Moon, whose approval rating has stayed over 70 percent, has lost some of his fans.
Ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics, low international recognition of the host city, PyeongChang, despite three previous bids to host the Games before it won, has been a longstanding issue. The 2015 story of a Kenyan who had planned to fly to PyeongChang, but ended up in Pyongyang because of an airline employee’s mistake, is still on everyone’s lips.
Moreover, a shocking public survey released by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in December of last year found that only 5 percent of South Koreans said that they would actually visit PyeongChang to watch the Games. On top of that, media stories about the potential for a freezing opening ceremony and slow ticket sales have stained the Games’ reputation. In addition, Korail, the South Korean railroad operator, created a special “PyeongChang pass” targeting international spectators coming to the Games — but failed to realize it didn’t have enough seats to accommodate both the spectators and Korean citizens who need to travel during the Lunar New Year holiday, which overlaps with the Games.
In an effort to raise awareness of the sporting event and promote the Games, PyeongChang’s organizing committee went through a significant reshuffle last September, creating new positions – executive vice president of games planning and communications and executive vice president of communications and city relations. The hope was that the newly added public relations specialists would be able to spark some interest in the Games, but the moves failed to grab public attention. The Olympic torch relay began on the first day of November, 100 days ahead of the Games, but even that was upstaged by the news that South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) had been giving some of its “special activity funds” to ousted former President Park Geun-hye. Adding to the trouble, the 2017 Dream Concert in PyeongChang to celebrate the 100-day countdown to the Games resulted in five people, including four teenagers, being hospitalized for hypothermia.
In another misstep, South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon asked domestic corporations to cooperate and purchase tickets during a “Luncheon with PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games and Paralympic Games Partners,” a move that was frowned upon by the public, as it seemed like the government was trying to force the firms to solve its poor ticket sales problem. Regardless of its intentions, the Seoul metropolitan government purchasing a total of 42,000 tickets and giving away the ones to unpopular sporting events – such as cross-country skiing and the biathlon – to low-income, multicultural, and single-parent families in Seoul raises the question: Are the ticket sales really so bad that the government has to pay for and distribute them for free?
Kim Jong-un, the Game Changer
Against this backdrop, the fact that a North Korean delegation will attend the Games lent credence to South Korea’s efforts to host such a troublesome event, gave PyeongChang some welcome positive publicity, and provided the world with more reasons to pay attention. News of the North’s participation made the Wall Street Journal’s front page; the New York Times called the agreement “a symbolic breakthrough” and CNN labeled the Games “a tension reducer.” International media covered the news in depth due to its potential positive consequences.
Backed by support from the United States along with Russia and China, North Korea’s participation has the potential to drive peace initiatives and be a meaningful turning point in relations between the two Koreas. Setting aside Kim Jong-un’s hidden motives and intentions, as of now, it is indisputable that the announcement of North Korea’s participation helped the Games receive international attention.
On top of that, along with an agreement made between the United States and South Korea to suspend joint military exercises during the Games, Pyongyang’s participation likely guarantees that the North won’t make any provocative moves during the event, at least during the same time period, enabling a “freeze-for-freeze” deal. As a result, the deal helps eliminate the likelihood of countries skipping the PyeongChang Games due to security concerns, a possibility first raised by France last September.
The Cost of an Olympic Deal
Of course, there is no such thing as a free lunch and therefore, there will be costs to pay in return for the North’s participation.
First, there is the sacrifice that South Korean athletes would have to make. The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism announced the formation of a joint Korean women’s ice hockey team. The ministry promised that the decision wouldn’t hinder South Korean athletes from competing because the number of roster spots will increase. But critics say that being forced to come together at the last minute would damage the existing team’s camaraderie and can be seen, especially from the outside, as preferential treatment being given to unqualified North Korean athletes, a move that could eventually diminish the IOC’s core values and ideals. The International Olympic Committee announced its decision on January 20 to allow 22 North Korean athletes to compete in hockey, skating, and alpine skiing; the only discipline the North was qualified to compete in was figure skating pairs, but the North Korean team missed the entry deadline.
Second, the financial costs that the South Korean government will likely cover in accordance with the North’s participation could be excessive. Yes, Bach, the IOC president, pledged to pay for the expenses, but that offer was for the North Korean athletes only. According to inter-Korean talks held on January 9, the North Korean delegation will be comprised of athletes, officials, journalists, an art troupe, and others. The sports delegation alone (athletes and officials) will include 46 people. The ultimate size of the delegation hasn’t been negotiated yet, but is expected to be the largest in scale ever, and so will be the corresponding expenses.
Third, a conflict with existing United Nations sanctions against North Korea may put South Korea in an awkward position. That is especially burdensome to Seoul’s relations with its greatest ally, the United States, a country that has called for imposing tougher sanctions on North Korea. As a response to the inter-Korean talks, a U.S. State Department official commented, “The United States remains in close consultations with ROK officials, who will ensure North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics does not violate the sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council over North Korea’s unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs.” Moon made it clear during his New Year news conference at the presidential Blue House on January 10 that he isn’t seeking to arbitrarily ease sanctions against the communist state.
South Korea’s Foreign Affairs Ministry pledged to support the North’s participation without violating UN sanctions, but as the Chosun Ilbo reported, bulk cash support for the delegation’s expenses, allowing North Korean ships and planes to enter the South, providing South Korean ships and planes to the North Korean delegation, and permitting entry to high-ranking North Korean officials on the sanctions list who may be part of the delegation should all be banned in order not to violate the sanctions. Choi Moon-soon, the governor of the host city, has argued that the money for the North’s stay during the PyeongChang Games should come from the Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund, which has a legal basis and won’t flow into the North nor be spent for the North’s nuclear development, and therefore, does not violate the sanctions. However, this argument raises concerns regarding how to resolve the complexity surrounding the issue.
Summing up, Moon will have to find ways to have the North participate in the PyeongChang Olympics without upsetting the United States and the global community. With roughly three weeks remaining till the Games kick off, the two Koreas are gearing up for the event each trying to tailor the details in their favor. Yes, it would be nice to watch a North Korean team compete on South Korean soil, but Moon’s Olympic peace initiative may be considered tenuous if it jeopardizes South Korea’s relations with the United States and isolates the country within the global community by breaking international commitments in order to accommodate the North’s needs.
Moon should contemplate whether he may end up paying too high a price for what can possibly be earned in return. Previous efforts at “sports diplomacy,” after all, have fallen short. As Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in his book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, published in 2015, “Former NBA star Dennis Rodman’s basketball games in North Korea likewise did nothing to break down barriers, but may have convinced Kim Jung-un that he would face no consequences for seizing American hostages or for perpetuating North Korea’s concentration camps.”
Kim Haeyoon is a freelance writer based in South Korea.