PyeongChang Olympics, Or Pyongyang?


In what has been heralded as a ‘diplomatic breakthrough’ by the Atlantic Post, North Korea and South Korea will present a combined women’s ice hockey team for the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games. ABC News reports that in conjunction with the team, twenty-two athletes will represent North Korea and march under one flag with South Korea in the opening ceremony. While such announcements signify a positive shift from tensions that have permeated discussion of a nuclear North Korea, they have also been met with criticism. This article will explore the possible positive and negative implications of North Korea’s involvement in the Winter Olympics.

To understand the positive implications of North Korea’s participation for diplomacy and peace, it is first necessary to consider how this decision departs from traditional policy and discussion.

Since increasing tensions between North Korea and states, policies can be simplistically divided between those akin to appeasement and restriction. Current South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s predilection for diplomacy and stronger economic partnership with North Korea can be loosely tied to appeasement. However, it is this likeness to appeasement policies that has drawn debate concerning how much power should be given to North Korea.

Alternatively, recent UN sanctions aiming to address North Korea’s escalating threats of violence specifically restrict the state. While successful in this respect, the sanctions have still elicited angered responses and threats of violence from North Korea.

It is through considering these flaws that the potential success of North Korea’s Olympic involvement as a tool for diplomacy is highlighted. For what distinguishes this decision from previous policies, and indeed prompts success, is its foundation of cooperation.

This is evident twofold.

Firstly, the logistics of participating in the Olympics requires communication between states. It is through improving inter-state dialogue, in whatever form, that the foundations for peaceful discussions are established.

Secondly, this participation diverts from previous policies by providing North Korea agency. In policies of both appeasement and restriction, North Korea is relegated to a position in which other states decide its position in international society. Alternatively, North Korea’s participation and thus cooperation with other states and organisations in the Olympics provides it a certain amount of agency and diminishes the ‘us-vs-them’ mentality that has characterized discussion. For such a reason, this shift in political discourse that North Korea’s cooperation heralds will foster a renewed sense of global peace and unity, and further add to the aforementioned ‘foundations’ for peaceful discussion and solutions.

While this outcome would be undeniably positive, its ideological basis has been criticized. As an indelible threat, the notion of providing North Korea with ‘agency’, however minimal, is opposed. Indeed, in the wake of the announcement of North Korea’s participation, many have argued that its very involvement is a mere publicity ploy. In the South China Morning Post, David Josef Volodzko reports on the imminent arrival of North Korean reporters, government officials and entertainers in Pyeongchang, as well as a scheduled military parade on the same day as the Games’ opening. Volodzko concludes that such fanfare is an ‘effort to steal South Korea’s spotlight’; essentially, North Korea is exploiting the PyeongChang Olympics to demonstrate its strength and to promote a specific agenda.

Fundamentally, it is essential to remember the core purpose of the Olympics; a gathering of countries in a friendly and united spirit. When considering the possible positive or negative implications of North Korea’s imminent involvement, it is necessary to consider this and recognize North Korea’s inherent right as a state to be a part of an international society that strives for peace and unity.

Emily Forrester