WASHINGTON — The participation of North Korean athletes with the South Korean Olympic team is raising eyebrows around the world, with some experts saying North Korea is trying to politicize the event.
Athletes from both countries will march together in the opening ceremony Friday, and for the first time, in the spirit of unity of the Games, they will sport a joint women’s ice hockey team. However, recent actions taken by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may actually jeopardize the countries’ political relations, said experts during a conference call organized by the Wilson Center in D.C.
In a historic moment for both nations, Kim’s sister plans to travel to Pyeongchang to attend the sporting events, officials said Wednesday. This is the first time a member of the North Korean ruling family will cross the border.
Sports fans around the world may view North Korea’s participation as an effort to extend an olive branch during a time of geopolitical crisis.
“The mood is very different in South Korea,” said Jean Lee, a Wilson Center global fellow who has covered North Korean athletes for more than 20 years. “The Olympics are about unity and peace and sports diplomacy, but I have very different feelings personally. … [I am] much more skeptical of any moves made by North Korea.”
North Korea has rapidly advanced its nuclear arms technology, having fired 26 missiles over 10 months in 2017.
Middle East analyst Aaron Miller said on the call that it’s not uncommon for political agendas to accompany the international sporting event. Some notable examples include the 1936 Berlin ceremonies, which countries including the U.S. and France boycotted due to heated controversy over the Nazi rule, and the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when eight Palestinian terrorists invaded the Olympic Village and killed two members of the Israeli team.
This year, the U.S. hopes its campaign of penalties and military threats will pressure North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program. Vice President Mike Pence, who is scheduled to attend the Olympics with his wife, announced on Wednesday that Washington will introduce the “toughest ever” sanctions until North Korea takes concrete steps toward “irreversible” denuclearization.
“We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games,” Pence said. “We will not allow North Korea to hide behind the Olympic banner the reality that they enslave their people and threaten the wider region.”
The key factor to a peaceful climate in the Games will be if the U.S. administration decides to engage in talks with North Korea without preconditions or whether North Korea will sit down to discuss nuclearization, said James Kim, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. However, he said things will remain calm on the Korean Peninsula until the end of March why then.
The decision for athletes to march under a blue-and-white flag representing a unified Korea has already eroded South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s popularity. Moon faced a four-month low approval rating in January following opposition — mainly from younger males — over the joint Olympic team. James Kim says that a sizeable group of older adults has vocalized its disappointment over South Korea’s foreign relations.
“I’m expecting it will be back to a tense environment even after the Olympics,” James Kim said.