North Korea & Olympics: Politics as usual

Olympics

South Korean athletes hold a banner during the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Olympic games in Los Angeles, 12 August 1984. The South Korean capital hosted the 1988 Games.
(AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

By Paul Radford

I have covered 17 Olympics and can assure you, they are much more than sport. Consider them international politics with sports thrown in.

North Korea’s sudden enthusiasm for taking part in next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang on the southern side of the demilitarized zone may be rooted in the heavy political price paid, including its international isolation, following its decision to boycott the Seoul Summer Olympics in 1988.

From the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin that Adolf Hitler tried to subvert into Aryan propaganda, only to be thwarted by the sheer supremacy of African American athlete Jesse Owens and his four gold medals, politics and the Olympics have always been intertwined.

The killing of 11 Israeli athletes and officials by armed Palestinians at the 1972 Olympics in Munich was the start of an unhappy sequence.

African nations withdrew from the Montreal Olympics in 1976. The United States and some of its allies boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. Four years later, it was the Soviet Union’s turn when Moscow and most other socialist states snubbed the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

All of this left the Olympic movement on the brink of falling apart.

Neither state had been granted UN membership.

Then along came Seoul, the Olympics that was billed as a make-or-break event.

The South Korean capital was hardly the safest choice for a precarious organization like the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

At that stage, South Korea was far from being an economic power and was politically unstable and permanently on a potential war-footing because of tensions with the North following the Korean War. Although active hostilities ended in 1953, no peace treaty was signed and neither state was granted UN membership.

South Korea had no relations with the socialist states of the time, and another boycott of the Games was a serious risk. The IOC launched a major, and ultimately successful, diplomatic effort to persuade the Soviet Union and China, North Korea’s most important allies, to take part. 

North Korea seemed to have an ambivalent attitude to the forthcoming Games. It veered between making veiled threats of disruption and demands that the Olympics should be staged jointly by both Korean states.

It was never totally clear whether the North Koreans would have preferred the Games to be a spectacular failure or a blinding success — with the North taking a big chunk of the credit and prestige.

The chances of an agreement effectively went down with that flight.

Loud initial demands for the Games to be shared equally between Seoul and Pyongyang were toned down during lengthy negotiations with the IOC as it became clearer that North Korea was largely isolated and that there would be no international boycott.

The IOC, sensing that bringing the two Koreas closer together would be a huge diplomatic coup that would bring the organisation great credit, offered the North Koreans the chance to stage two or three sports but, though tantalizingly close, the deal could not be struck.

The vacillating approach from Pyongyang culminated in an extreme attempt at disruption when two North Korean agents planted a bomb on a Korean Air plane flying between Baghdad and Seoul in November 1987.

The aircraft exploded in mid-air, killing 115 people, most of them South Korean. The chances of an agreement effectively went down with that flight.

In the end, the Games went on to be a great success, despite the non-participation of the northern neighbors. South Korea was able to launch itself on the international stage, gained recognition from many new countries and started a great economic boom.

The Pyeongchang Olympics take on an extra political significance.

A humiliated North Korea, by contrast, slipped into ever greater isolation and economic decline, and turned to strengthening its military and nuclear deterrent as its perceived only means of being heard or of being taken seriously by the rest of the world.

To a large extent, this is where the current Korean crisis started.

In a world in which nuclear threats are being ratcheted up to danger point by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the Pyeongchang Olympics take on extra political significance.

An accommodation between the two Koreas over the North’s participation in the Games would be a clear signal towards lessening the growing tension.

The recollection of what went wrong in the build-up to the Seoul Olympics needs to be remembered by both sides. South Korea may have surged forwards after its Olympic triumph, but it was at a cost to its more than uneasy relationship with its most important neighbor.

The Olympic movement went into a moment of diplomatic amnesia.

Sadly, political memories are not always perfect where the Olympics are concerned.

The boycott of the Moscow Games by the United States and some of its western allies was over the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which had started in 1979 and was to go on for 10 years.

Skip forwards 22 years to when the United States staged the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, the year after its own troops moved into Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda training bases and overthrow the Taliban government in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.   

The Olympic movement went into a moment of diplomatic amnesia. There was no boycott and the curious irony of the Afghanistan situation went largely unmentioned.


Former global sports editor at Reuters, Paul Radford has covered 17 Olympic Games, seven World Cups and numerous world championships in more than 20 sports. He was sports editor for 12 years at the end of a career that included assignments in Germany and Paris. Currently a consultant to the International Olympic Committee, he has served on the IOC’s press commission for 15 years and was editor-in-chief of the official Olympic News service at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

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