Escalating brinkmanship. Crippling sanctions. Intercontinental missile testing. Can the hair-trigger standoff between North and South Korea be diffused by figure skating?
The 2018 winter Olympic games will be hosted by North Korea’s mortal enemy about 40 miles from their border, in Pyeongchang South Korea. Whether the regime ends up as a participant or as a pariah, it will not be the first the Olympics has been at the center of a geopolitical chess game.
Despite a tiny economy and decades of international isolation, North Korea has produced an impressive slate of world class athletes; and won dozens of Olympic medals. From judo to gymnastics, table tennis to wresting. In the early 200’s, the two Koreas, still formally at war, actually marched together in the Olympic ceremonies. This year, even with the global crackdown on the regime, South Korea’s president, the International Olympic Committee have been repeatedly urging North Korea to attend the so-called games of peace.
To fully understand the global push to get North Korea to compete, you need to rewind to the 1988 Olympics. Seoul was selected as the host city. To North Korea, it was not just a snub, but an affront to their national dignity. They demanded, with apparent support from China and the Soviet Union, that the International Olympic committee allow the north to co-host and move some events across the border. There were two years of secret negotiations and threats. Ten months before the 1988 games, two agents of the regime placed a bomb on Korean Air flight 858, killing more than a hundred people. The bombers later said that the goal was to sabotage the Olympics by scaring off attendees. But the games went on as planned, and were hailed as a historic success for the south.
Meanwhile, North Korea, which carried out a feeble boycott after being abandoned by the Soviets and Chinese, was named a state sponsor of terror by the United States. What followed was years of international isolation, crippling hardship and famine, and aggressive nuclear ambitions.
There have been periods of calm. The north occasionally sent teams to international competitions in the South. In 1991, the two Koreas actually united to play as a single team in youth soccer and table tennis tournaments. But North Korea notoriously lashed out again when the South was hosting the World Cup in 2002. During the final set of matches, two boats from the North opened fire on a South Korean patrol ship, triggering a gun battle that killed and injured dozens of sailors on both sides.
It was the last major international sports competition held in South Korea. Today, the threat posed by North Korea has been intensifying. But diplomacy has found a place on the playing field. There were the North and South gymnasts in Rio; the cross-border women’s hockey and soccer matches last spring; the tai kwon do exchange in June. And then there was a pair of figure skaters from North Korea, who in September won world-wide fans and qualified to compete in the Olympics, skating to a Beatles song. But it remains to be seen whether the games can offer a diplomatic off-ramp for the standoff. Or even a brief reprieve for a whirl around the rink.