What to know about the politics of the Pyeongchang Games

From Russia’s participation to diplomatic opportunities, the political implications of this year’s Winter Olympics are many. David Lao breaks down five things you need to know.    

By: /
February 21, 2018
South Korea Olympics
Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, US Vice President Mike Pence and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier attend the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Games. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The 23rd Winter Olympic Games are now in their second week in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The games, which kicked off February 9 and run until February 25, will see 92 countries participating in winter sports ranging from snowboarding, speed skating, ski jumping and, of course, ice hockey.

There has been extensive coverage of the games and athletes so far, but it’s also important to note the political context and events happening behind the scenes. Here are five things you should know about what’s been happening in South Korea over the last two weeks, and in the lead up to the games themselves.

1. This is not the first time the Koreas have marched underneath the same banner.

Although the opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang on February 9 were noted for bringing athletes from the two Koreas under one flag, the Korean unification flag has in fact been in use for over 25 years.

The flag was first created in 1990 for the Asian Games in Beijing, ahead of which the two countries underwent negotiations to march and compete together. The plans collapsed, however, due to disagreements on both sides. 

The first official use occurred in 1991, when both North and South Korea competed as a single team during the 41st World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, as well as the World Youth Football Championship in Portugal.

The two teams marched again under the flag in the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Australia; the 2002 Asian Games and 2003 Summer Universiade in South Korea; the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece; the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy and the 2006 Asian games in Qatar.

The march of both countries this month should not be seen as overly significant, says Brock University political science professor Charles Burton, who notes that the North Korean presence in Pyeongchang is likely an optics strategy, while its invitation from South Korea may be strategic for security reasons as well. 

“I think what it’s primarily about is the North Korean regime wishing to use some soft power to give an impression that the regime is reasonable and can be talked with and is friendly. And for the South Korean perspective, one important factor is that if North Korea is actively participating in the Pyeongchang Olympics, that they’re not likely to blow something up or foment another incident that would distract the world’s attention from these Olympics,” says Burton.

2. The thawing of Korean relations is still far from certain.

One day after the Olympics got underway, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un extended an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to attend a summit in Pyongyang. Should Moon choose to go, the meeting would be the first of its kind in more than 10 years.

The invitation comes after recent exchanges between North and South Korean officials, especially between Moon and Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, a member of North Korea’s Politburo and special envoy to the Winter Games. While this signals a moment of warming between the two fiercely fractious countries, University of British Columbia professor of Korean history Donald Baker says that it’s still difficult to tell where this invitation might lead, even after Yo-jong’s visit to the South. 

“I’ve been studying the Koreas for over 40 years, and I’ve seen it so many times — the rollercoaster of the relationship between the North and the South,” says Baker. “But this is the first time a member of the Kim family has gone to South Korea [since]…the Korean War.”

Baker says that if the thawing of relations between the North and South fails to continue, then Jong-un might feel forced to show that he has the ability to set off a bomb from outside of a tunnel, a restriction that’s been placed on North Korean testing because of the country’s size and landscape. “The problem with that is that there’s no place in North Korea where you can do that. It means putting a bomb on a ship in the Pacific Ocean and exploding [it], and that would definitely make Donald Trump [feel] compelled to attack,” says Baker. “Should there be a [nuclear] agreement, and the North stop testing, alongside their sanctions being lifted, there might be a possibility of building more peaceful relations.”

3. The Trump administration has not yet named a South Korean diplomat.

The last American diplomatic envoy to South Korea was Mark Lippert, who served as ambassador during Barack Obama’s presidency, starting in 2014, until Trump’s inauguration in 2017. The position has been vacant since, among many other senior diplomatic positions around the world.  

“There’s still no US ambassador to South Korea, which is incredible,” says Baker. 

Baker says that academic and former George W. Bush advisor Victor Cha was the number one pick for the job. His name was reportedly withdrawn from consideration because of his stance opposing a US pre-emptive strike on North Korea — a strike that the current White House favours highly.

“The Korean studies community was very concerned, because Victor was a hardliner, and when a hardliner gets rejected by the Trump administration, that’s bad news,” says Baker. “[Cha is] smart enough to know a pre-emptive strike on North Korea would not only invoke a response from North Korea, but also lose America a lot of credibility in the world.”

4. The US has recently agreed to preliminary talks.

In Pyeongchang for the Olympics’ opening weekend, US Vice President Mike Pence was standoffish to the North Koreans, perhaps unsurprisingly. Prior to the opening ceremonies, Pence skipped a dinner where he was expected to share a table with the North Korean ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam. Later, Pence also refused to acknowledge the presence of Jong-un’s sister, Yo-jong, who was seated near him during the ceremonies themselves. (The North Koreans then cancelled a planned meeting between Pence and Yo-jong the next day, it was reported this week.)  

But despite Pence’s cold shoulder, last week the Trump administration agreed to be open to preliminary talks with North Korea. 

In Pyeongchang, Pence and Moon had agreed the talks should be without any set rules and to use the current sanctions against North Korea as leverage against the country. Pence has called the new strategy “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.”

South Korea and the US are still set to run joint military drills after the games are over. The Key Resolve and Ulchi-Freedom Guardian exercises are joint drills focused on supporting and preparing the defence of South Korea.

5. The participation of Russian athletes underscores Russia’s global influence.

Following a 17-month investigation into allegations of Russian doping during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, in December the Russian Olympic team was banned from participating in any of the Pyeongchang Games. It was announced, however, that individual athletes could participate by wearing a neutral uniform and under the Olympic flag.

While this came as a blow to Russia’s international image, Michael Heine, director of Western University’s International Centre for Olympic Studies, says that since the majority of Russian athletes were still included, despite the 2016 McLaren report findings of widespread doping, the International Olympic Committee has missed an opportunity to make a political statement.

“The way the IOC handled this, they’ve simply botched it, so they played a fairly weak role in this. I mean, I know they kind of excluded the Russian team by excluding the National Olympic Committee of Russia, which is the important link, but then of course they turned around and let 150 athletes back in, pretty much in contravention of the findings of the McLaren report,” he says.

Some anti-doping officials are saying that the reason behind the lenient treatment of the Russian doping case was because of the relationship between IOC President Thomas Bach and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shortly after Bach was elected, there was widespread speculation that Putin’s support played a key factor.

Against this backdrop, this past weekend Russian curler Alexander Krushelnytsky, who won a bronze medal during the games, failed a preliminary doping test. A routine urine sample found traces of banned heart medicine meldonium, adding further fuel to the argument for stronger suspensions — or an outright ban — against Russian athletes.