For everyone nervously watching the saber-rattling on the Korean peninsula, the Winter Olympics now starting in the South Korean mountain town of Pyeongchong comes as a reassuring pause in a terrifying global game of chicken. It was only last month that Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, suggested this his country might be open to participating in the games at all. Now the isolated nation is sending 22 athletes, and even the dictator’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, to the games hosted by his archrivals to the south.
The détente is viewed as a publicity coup for Kim Jong Un, who will use the opportunity to broadcast a more positive image of North Korea to the world. And the move isn’t just symbolic. The presence of diplomats and competitors in South Korea will make it far less likely that Kim tries something disruptive, even violent, over the next two weeks. It also appears to be another triumph for the Olympic Games, the 120-year-old international competition born as a way to bring countries together and overcome exactly the kind of long political enmities the Korean peninsula has been kindling for decades.
But in the case of the current Korean standoff, there’s reason to doubt how much the Olympics can help. In fact, there’s reason to believe the Olympics caused it.
The 1988 Seoul Olympics also appeared to be a diplomatic triumph of their time, a chance for a nation still mired in Cold War tensions to host all the countries of the world in its fast-growing capital city. But if you look at the full history of how those Games unfolded, you realize that the North Korean regime we face today—isolated, belligerent, desperately pumping up its dangerous nuclear program as its only leverage on the world stage—was born, in part, in 1988. At the Olympics.
It might seem almost heretical to think of the Olympics in this way. But the fraught historical relationship of the two Koreas made the 1988 games something of a powder keg from the moment they were announced. It was more than just a debut for an ambitious young nation on the world stage. It was a provocative development in the ongoing contest for legitimacy between the two Koreas—ultimately helping send the North into a tailspin we are still dealing with today.
When the International Olympic Committee announced in September 1981 that it had selected Seoul to host the 1988 Summer Olympics, Seoul and Pyongyang had been locked in a decades-long power play for global prestige and recognition that began in 1948, when the two nations were founded.
It began when Kim Il Sung failed to unify the peninsula by force in June 1950, thereby launching the Korean War. The shooting war lasted until 1953, but a peace treaty was never signed, so North and South Korea are still technically at war—a contest that shifted to the economic and cultural realm as both countries forged ahead to build up their nations.
For a while, it appeared that the North, bolstered by generous Soviet subsidies, might win. But by the early 1970s, South Korea had caught up economically, largely due to the policies of Park Chung Hee and his Cold War benefactor, the United States. By 1987, South Korea had also made a peaceful transition to democracy. Winning its bid for the 1988 Summer Olympics thus came to symbolize South Korea’s political and economic coming of age. It was a spectacular feat for a country once mired in poverty, and brought South Korea the global affirmation that it craved.
In the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, Kim Il Sung was forced to come up with a viable policy that might counter, or at least blunt, Seoul’s public relations coup. Kim first proffered the idea of sharing the Games between North and South Korea, 50 percent in Seoul and 50 percent in Pyongyang. In certain ways it appeared to be a reasonable, even enlightened, proposal. Since Korea was a divided country, the shared games might symbolically help to overcome the division, and jump-start inter-Korean dialogue. But the 50-50 proposal was a nonstarter as far as Seoul was concerned. Over the next several years, the IOC, Seoul and Pyongyang haggled over the number of sports North Korea might host, and it became increasingly clear that the parties would not be able to reach an agreement.
In October 1986, Kim Il Sung laid out his only trump card: He solicited Soviet support for a boycott of the games.
An Olympic boycott didn’t seem so unrealistic in the 1980s. President Jimmy Carter had kept American athletes home from the Moscow Olympics in 1980, leading a 66-nation boycott in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; the Soviet Union returned the insult in 1984, keeping most of the Iron Curtain nations out of the Los Angeles Olympics. Two Summer games in a row had become empty sweeps by the sole participating superpower.
But in 1986, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev politely refused to keep the fight alive in Seoul, stating that “a boycott of the Olympic Games from our side is unrealistic in the current conditions.”
When it became increasingly obvious that Kim Il Sung could not rely on China’s support of a boycott either, the South Koreans had no further incentives to compromise. The games, and the PR triumph, would belong entirely to South Korea.
This was a humiliation on the world stage for Pyongyang, and it also exposed the longstanding lie of North Korea’s domestic propaganda that the South was an economic basket case, its people on the verge of revolution. “President Kim Il Sung and his son said that Seoul could not organize the Olympic Games as there is nothing in Seoul but beggars in the streets!” South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan fumed in a revealing exchange with IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. “It is only propaganda and I know it, but when they [the North Korean people] realize that these Games will be a success, they [the North Korean leadership] became very nervous. … They can do nothing to stop Seoul!” Chun was right. He had won.
Kim then turned to a new option: sabotage. On November 29, 1987, two North Korean terrorists planted a bomb on KAL flight 858, a plane from Baghdad to Seoul, killing all 115 passengers and crew members, most of whom were South Koreans. The act earned North Korea international condemnation—it was blacklisted as a terrorist state—and the enduring enmity of the South Korean people.
But the worst was yet to come for North Korea. The Seoul Games also precipitated diplomatic recognition of South Korea by the Socialist bloc countries, which previously hadn’t officially recognized the South. It was part of new South Korean President Roh Tae Woo’s Nordpolitik policy, to isolate North Korea and thus force it to open itself to the world. Now recognized as a vibrant, rich and modern society, the South found cash-strapped communist countries knocking on its door, and Roh was happy to open it. “We would follow the road to Pyongyang through Eastern Europe, Moscow and Beijing,” he announced triumphantly. The first blow to Pyongyang came from Hungary. South Korea offered a loan of $625 million to help Hungary’s struggling economy. Full diplomatic relations were established on February 1, 1989, over Pyongyang’s vociferous objections.
The biggest blow came in 1990, however, when the Soviet Union announced that it would follow Hungary’s lead. As part of the Soviet Union’s agreement to establish full diplomatic relations with Seoul, Gorbachev also agreed to stop all military aid and cooperation with North Korea in return for South Korea’s economic assistance. China, North Korea’s other patron and neighbor, established diplomatic relations two years later, in August 1992.
Pyongyang was furious. Abandoned by his allies, humiliated by the Seoul Games and incapable of negotiating with South Korea on equal terms, Kim Il Sung sought to ensure his nation’s survival by pursuing a more extreme kind of leverage: nuclear deterrence.
The United States and Seoul responded to Kim’s decision to pursue a covert nuclear program with a stopgap deal, the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which Pyongyang committed to suspending its nuclear program in exchange for fuel oil and two proliferation-resistant nuclear power reactors. But when the Great Leader died shortly before the agreement was even signed, most believed that it would be only a matter of time before his country would be buried with him. North Korea, like other relics of the Cold War, would be tossed, unceremoniously, into the dustbin of history.
This did not happen. North Korea did not collapse, the division continued and Kim’s rule has become an autocratic dynasty. If the 1988 Olympic Games offers us a lesson for the present day, it is that a triumph on the world stage doesn’t improve the prospects for peace—especially if your rival is North Korea, a survivor regime whose rancor continues to burn bright.
There is an old Chinese phrase—”To sleep on firewood and taste gall”—drawn from the revenge story of King Gou Jian, who forced himself to taste bile to remember his humiliations. The Chinese commonly use the dictum to describe someone who endures self-imposed hardships to strengthen one’s resolve to realize one’s ambition. Like his grandfather and father before him, Kim Jong Un, who blames South Korea and the United States for everything that has gone wrong in his country, is playing for the long game—the so-called “final victory.”
This is creating new kinds of risks on the Korean peninsula. President Moon Jae-in has faced considerable political backlash in his own country for opening the door to North Korea. With the formation of a joint women’s ice hockey team, with athletes from the two nations marching under a unity flag, many South Koreans worry they’re becoming tools of Kim Jong Un’s public relations play. But in many ways, Moon has no choice: He has an opportunity to ease tensions on the peninsula, and believes he needs to take it. He’s betting there will be a bigger payoff—that amid the saber-rattling, not just in Pyongyang but in Washington as well, the Games will ease tensions and pave the way for inter-Korean dialogue and perhaps even a lasting peace. One wonders how the course of history might have changed had former President Chun Doo-hwan been so accommodating.
In sports, as in diplomacy, it is important to remember that in every story of triumph there is also a lesser known story of humiliation and defeat. The 2018 Games is reflection of that. If the 1988 Summer Olympics was a celebration of everything South Korea had worked for, the 2018 Winter Olympics is an effort to save everything that South Korea has achieved. That’s because North Korea now has the means to ruin everything for its southern neighbor. Excluding North Korea could have been even riskier than it was in 1988; including it may be dangerous not just for Moon’s political career, but for every nation worried about seeing the North’s behavior tacitly sanctioned. Beware the sore loser, and a vengeful one at that.
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