Most important Olympic athlete in 2018 (hint: he/she is from North Korea)
This is a reprint of my recent newspaper column in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. The link to the newspaper is here (subscription required).
The 2018 Winter Olympic Games will be held Feb. 9-25 next year in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Pyeongchang is roughly 50 miles from South Korea’s border with North Korea.
Much news recently has been reported on the escalating political and military tensions between North Korea and South Korea and its allies, particularly the United States and Japan.
As these tensions continue to escalate, some are wondering about the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Having them so close to the North Korean border could be disastrous if North Korea tries to disrupt them. The International Olympic Committee has no Plan B if the Pyeongchang Games need to be relocated or canceled.
The IOC has been quietly looking to China to help prevent any disturbance of the Games by North Korea. China has a relationship with, and some influence over, its neighbor. China is set to host the 2022 Winter Games and likely does not want to see the immediately prior Games undermined in any way.
The concerns about North Korea interfering with Pyeongchang are not unfounded. North Korea has a long history of wreaking disruption on the global stage.
From the 2014 computer hack of Sony Pictures to the recent missile launches over Japan, North Korea is known to use any means available to increase its relevance in the world.
When Seoul, South Korea, hosted the Olympic Games in 1988, Olympic officials worried that North Korea, which boycotted, might blow up a nearby dam and flood the host city.
With the 2018 Winter Games set to begin in less than five months so close to the North Korean border, North Korea has another prime opportunity to further raise its national profile in the world.
This situation raises a basic question — what might be the one thing that keeps North Korea from disrupting the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang?
The answer: having a North Korean athlete compete in these games. It will do a few things.
First, North Korea will be less likely to sabotage a sports competition in which one or more of its own athletes are competing. The Olympics present a high-profile opportunity available only once every few years for a country to show athletic prowess. To disrupt the games would be to undermine that opportunity.
Second, if North Korea competes in Pyeongchang, the isolated country will have the chance to connect with other countries in a format other than the political and military back-and-forth of the last nine months.
The wide consensus in the political and sporting communities is that North Korea would use the Pyeongchang Games as an opportunity to further its public relations goals, mainly though what has been dubbed “sports diplomacy.”
“Sports diplomacy” is generally defined as using sports to further or influence diplomatic, social and political relations. Since international sports naturally bring people with different national and cultural identities together, the Olympic Games are an obvious opportunity to engage in this type of diplomacy.
North Korea has, in fact, pursued sports diplomacy as a matter of national policy since the 1980s. One obvious example is that North Korea sought to send a joint Korean team, including both North and South Korean athletes, to the Olympics Games in 2000-2008, even though such a team was never organized.
Since assuming power in 2011, Kim Jong Un has emphasized sports and sports diplomacy. Sport venues and facilities have been built and renovated. Financial resources have been allocated to sport programs. Athletes have been given a higher profile on the national stage in North Korea.
North Korea’s participation in the Olympics might seem contrary to its isolationist, closed-border policy. But, in fact, North Korean athletes have participated in every Summer Olympic Games since 1972, except for 1984 and 1996 due to boycotts. North Korea also has participated in eight Winter Olympic Games.
North Korea has won 56 Olympic medals since its first Olympics. The country’s athletes have won 16 gold medals, 16 silver and 24 bronze. The number of North Korean Olympic medals is impressive in light of its relatively small size. The country has a population of 25 million people, comparable to the state of Texas. The country has an estimated GDP of $28 billion, which would put it roughly on par with El Salvador.
Notwithstanding the current escalating tension between North Korea, South Korea and South Korea’s allies, including the United States. Chang Ung, North Korea’s IOC member, said recently that North Korea does not anticipate that the tension will interfere with the Pyeongchang Games. “I am quite sure that politics is one thing and Olympics is another thing,” he said recently to the IOC.
North Korea is not the only country using the Olympics has an opportunity to pursue sports diplomacy. South Korea has hinted at having North Korea host some 2018 events. North Korea has a ski resort, Masikryong, about three hours from Pyongyang. The resort was opened in 2014, and the general understanding is that North Korea is keen on increasing tourism. South Korea views the use of North Korean sites for 2018 events as a way to further connect with the isolated country.
South Korea also has said that if North Korean athletes compete in Pyeongchang, the athletes might cross the demilitarized zone that constitutes the border between the two countries. Such an act would be both a literal and symbolic gesture of cooperation between two opposing political forces.
Currently, no North Korean athlete has qualified for the Pyeongchang Games. The final opportunity for the North Koreans to qualify is the 2017 Nebelhorn Trophy, an international figure skating competition to be held Sept. 27-30, in Oberstdorf, Germany.
Ironically, any North Korean athlete that competes in Pyeongchang may never know the international implications of his or her presence at the games. North Korean athletes typically are kept isolated from fellow athletes during the Olympic Games and are barred from outside communications.
At the Rio Games in 2016, North Korean officials prohibited their athletes from receiving the Samsung phones that were given for free to the Olympic athletes.
If North Korea has an athlete competing in Pyeongchang, it will have a vested interest in seeing the games succeed. If not, then the border between North Korea and South Korea may seem much wider, as the isolated and unpredictable North Korea may resort to unconventional means to continue to raise its profile on the global stage during the games in February.
Keep your fingers crossed for the North Korean athletes competing in Oberstdorf.