Upon hearing the announcement of North Korea’s intent to participate in the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, South Korea capitalized on the opportunity to strengthen their diplomatic relations with the North and promote peace through the Olympics. The North and South have been collaborating since then, even forming a joint Korean women’s hockey team and agreeing to walk under a flag depicting a unified Korean peninsula at the opening ceremony. While the Olympics may seem like a progressive step towards thawing the tension between the two countries and securing a peace treaty, this measure is merely a temporary one and will ultimately fail to have a lasting impact on the tensions between the two sides of the peninsula due to the North’s insistence on nuclear weapons, their track record of sabotage, and increasing efforts of undermining the South Korea-U.S. alliance.
Despite agreeing to a unified partnership with the South, North Korea is intent on keeping their nuclear armaments. During the meeting between the two sides on Jan. 9, North Korea’s chief negotiator, Ri Son Gwon, stated that “all state-of-the-art strategic weapons, including atomic and hydrogen bombs, ICBMs, rockets, are entirely targeting the US.” While this statement may be interpreted as one indicative of an easing of tensions between the North and South due to the North’s supposed exclusive targeting of the U.S., tensions are bound to arise in the peninsula, since we are allied with the South. South Korea will be torn between the US, their long-standing ally, and North Korea, their Northern kin. Adding to this tension, South Korean opinion on the North isn’t uniform; different demographics express different sentiments. The younger generation is more resistant towards aligning with the North while the older generation is more inclined towards establishing better relations because of their kinfolk in the North, which can cause a split in South Korea that will further agitate the already flammable tensions.
Another point to consider is that we can’t predict or trust that North Korea will desist from acts of sabotage aimed at weakening the economic sanctions placed upon them by the United Nations. In 1988, North Korea attempted to sabotage the Seoul Summer Olympics by detonating a bomb in an airliner bound for Seoul, killing 112 people. The person responsible for the bombing was caught after she attempted to commit suicide. Though heightened security has been put in place since then, considering the North’s proclivity for feats of sabotage, who’s to say that North Korea won’t attempt the same thing or something worse for this year’s Games? If we can’t trust the North to be on their best behavior during a highly-publicized international sporting event, how can we expect the Olympics to be successful in de-escalating the tensions in the peninsula?
A more grievous effect of the North’s participation in the Olympics is the resulting cracks that have formed in the South Korea-U.S. alliance, the goal of which being the denuclearization of the peninsula. North Korea has played the victim card many times in their propaganda war with the U.S. and the Olympics has provided the North ample ammunition to further degrade the alliance, and it’s already starting to show with the contradicting statements released by the U.S. and South Korea after the opening ceremony about whether the Games are the beginning or the end of engagement with North Korea. Add to that the North’s completion and showcasing of their new ICBMs at a military parade that was held a day before the opening ceremony and the South Korea-US alliance doesn’t seem so steady now. These tensions will only serve to drive a wedge between the two long-time allies.
With that being said, the easing of tensions in the peninsula with the upcoming Olympics, though temporary, could serve as a reprieve for many who have been fearing that rising conflict between North Korea and South Korea would worsen to the point of conventional warfare or even nuclear war. It certainly would be a welcome sight to see North Korea refraining from waving their nukes around during the Olympics. However, this is only temporary. Once the Games end, there’s nothing stopping North Korea from returning their full attention to their nukes, revitalizing the tensions that were eased by the Olympics.
As the Olympics draw nearer, I can only pray that things will go smoothly and no major incidents happen to dampen the high spirits and camaraderie traditionally associated with the Olympics. Here’s hoping that this will be a good, promising step forward in peaceful negotiations with North Korea… but I doubt that the peaceful coexistence of the Olympics will last for any substantial effect to occur.