Will North Korea Blow Up the Winter Olympics?
It’s possible. But here are a few steps Washington, Seoul, and Pyongyang can take to keep the 2018 Winter Games peaceful.
Thirty years ago last month, Korean Air Flight 858 exploded over the Andaman Sea. More than 100 innocent passengers died. Though it’s shrouded in mystery, according to U.S. intelligence the bombing was planned by North Korea to frighten the international community away from the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul. It didn’t work. The games were a success, and North Korea landed on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
This February, amid the highest tensions with Pyongyang in decades, the Winter Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, just 50 miles from the Demilitarized Zone along the North Korean border. The United States and North Korea are facing off with bombastic insults and nuclear weapons. This year alone, North Korea has launched 20 missiles, including three successful intercontinental ballistic missiles and its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. What could go wrong?
Plenty. In late November, after North Korea’s latest and longest ballistic missile test, South Korean President Moon Jae-in convened a national security meeting to review whether the launch could undermine the games. Government officials and members of Pyeongchang’s organizing committee have attempted to allay fears stoked by both the United States and North Korea. In response to the launch, U.S. President Donald Trump cryptically responded, “This situation will be handled!” President Moon warned, “We must stop a situation where North Korea miscalculates and threatens us with nuclear weapons or where the United States considers a pre-emptive strike.”
Even if war does not break out, it boggles the mind to consider all the ways North Korea could try to disrupt the Winter Olympics. Another airline bombing, food poisoning, or bomb threats — all of which would be difficult to trace back to the North. It makes you wonder why the games were ever given to South Korea in the first place. Back in 2011, when the announcement that it would host was first made, tensions were high following North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship, which killed 46 crewmembers.
But this potential disaster is also an opportunity for progress toward peace if Seoul, Washington, and Pyongyang play their cards right. The upcoming Olympics provide a needed excuse for all sides to come together.
South Korea, which is struggling to reassure the world that the games will be safe, is off to the right start by inviting the North to send athletes to participate (a North Korean figure-skating pair qualified for the Olympics in September). What better way to get Pyongyang to play nice? According to Moon, North Korea’s participation would be “a great opportunity to send a message of reconciliation and peace to the world.”
Unfortunately, the next U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, called Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, happen to coincide with the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, which run into March. North Korea has consistently protested these drills, which have involved “decapitation” raids against its leadership and the movement of over 300,000 U.S. and South Korean troops. The North is unlikely to send athletes to Pyeongchang if the joint exercises take place as planned.
To solve this problem, Seoul and Washington should reschedule the exercises, not only to reduce the chances that North Korea will disrupt the Olympics, but also to start a diplomatic opening to Pyongyang.
Those who have been paying attention know that diplomacy — even with its mixed track record — holds the best potential to reduce tensions and halt the North’s nuclear and missile program. Sanctions have not worked and, despite what hawks might argue, there are no “limited” military options that do not invite catastrophe. As a group of 58 retired military leaders wrote in a recent letter to President Trump, “Military action by the United States and its allies prompting an immediate, retaliatory artillery barrage on Seoul would result in hundreds of thousands of casualties.” Nor can we hide behind missile defenses, which are unreliable. So, despite President Trump’s efforts to undermine Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, we must engage the North. There are simply no other good options.
But how do we get talks going? Who makes the first move? And what is the plan?
The upcoming Olympics provide the perfect opportunity for the United States and North Korea to sit down and talk. Washington can offer to suspend the military exercises, and in return Pyongyang might offer to suspend its nuclear and missile tests. The North would agree to send its athletes and not blow anything up. Then, Trump, Moon, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un can look like statesmen taking the high road to protect the proud history of the games and the athletes.
Such an agreement would be consistent with the recent United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for an “Olympic Truce” during the Winter Games. The International Olympic Committee said the resolution aims for a cessation of hostilities to guarantee the safe passage of athletes and their families to and from the games. This agreement would also ease Washington and Pyongyang into a mini “freeze-for-freeze” deal that many see as the first step to limiting the North’s nuclear and missile development. The initial deal could last from now until April, during which time the two sides should begin talks on reducing tensions and formalizing the dual freeze for a longer duration.
South Korea has already taken the first step to ensure that the Olympics remain peaceful by requesting that the United States delay the joint exercises. The Republic of Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command said, “We want the Pyeongchang Olympics to be successful and have committed to our ally that we will aid their success.” But Washington has yet to announce its response. When asked about the request on Tuesday, Tillerson said he was unaware of any plans to alter the military exercises, and a Pentagon spokesman said “it would be inappropriate to discuss plans for future exercises at this time.”
In diplomacy, timing is everything, and the Olympics may be coming at just the right time. After the most recent missile test, Kim announced that his nation had “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” Does this mean the North is now open to serious talks to limit the size of its program in exchange for concessions from Washington? It’s time to find out.
Some will argue that the United States should not modify the joint exercises, but it has done so before without sacrificing deterrence or military readiness. In 1992, the United States suspended Team Spirit, an annual field exercise that involved hundreds of thousands of troops. The decision was part of a diplomatic strategy to encourage North Korea to cooperate on nuclear inspections. The United States suspended Team Spirit again in 1994 as part of the Agreed Framework, a deal that froze North Korea’s nuclear weapons program for nearly a decade.
Here’s an opportunity for the United States to de-escalate the crisis once more — this time, through the powerful medium of sports. Historically, sports diplomacy has succeeded in building bridges between adversaries. Ping-pong diplomacy thawed U.S.-China relations ahead of Nixon’s famous Beijing visit. Wrestling diplomacy established dialogue between the United States and Iran after decades of severed ties. And basketball diplomacy gave an American team unprecedented access into North Korea, and a historic meeting with Kim Jong Un — a feat that no U.S. diplomat has accomplished.
With so few diplomatic options available, the United States should seize on this Olympic moment to lay the groundwork for dialogue. The whole world will be watching.
Tom Z. Collina is Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC.