The Olympics are always a fantastic spectacle of athletic strength, grace, and agility, but in a way that’s especially true this year, they also present a grand opportunity to celebrate the peace and friendship between the nations represented at the games.
Last month, South Korea agreed to allow its authoritarian neighbor North Korea to participate in the Pyeongchang games. Though relations between the two countries have been fraught since the 1950-53 Korean War, they marched together at the Olympics’ opening ceremony under a “unified Korea” flag. Only two of North Korea’s athletes — their figure skating pair, Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-Sik — actually qualified for the games on merit, but several other North Korean athletes have received permission to participate.
This remarkable breakthrough in diplomacy and comradeship between the two nations is worth celebrating, even as we remember that North Korea is a dictatorial and oppressive country, one that has committed a plethora of human rights atrocities against its citizens. It’s likely that North Korea sees its participation in these games as an opportunity to spread propaganda regarding its government and citizenry. But in fact, the presence of North Korean athletes at the games presents us with a unique chance to highlight and better understand the plight of North Korean citizens — and to give North Korean athletes a glimpse of the larger world beyond their own oppressive regime.
One of our most powerful tools of diplomacy is persuasion through example. While our country is not always perfect in living up to its ideals, our Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, religion, and expression that is entirely absent in North Korea. Those liberties have long appealed to people in other countries, and many have sought — sometimes at great personal cost — to promote similar democratic principles and human rights in their homelands. President Ronald Reagan understood the transformational power of America as an exemplar, a shining “city on a hill,” for the world.
North Korean athletes will doubtless be under stricter surveillance than their peers, but they will still get to observe the relative freedom and happiness among athletes from countries they’ve been told to eschew or disdain. North Korea may see this as an opportunity to promote its own government, but it may also be a prime opportunity to engage with North Korean citizens on our own terms: a chance to present them with a vision of greater hope and freedom.
It’s important that our focus during these games are on these softer, winsome-oriented goals, and on supporting the diplomatic efforts of our ally, South Korea.
It is true that the Kims, beyond the maltreatment of their own citizens, have imprisoned and abused U.S. citizens in the past. The father of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier, a student who was killed in North Korea last year, attended the games’ opening ceremony with Vice President Mike Pence. Pence also just announced the U.S. will be imposing additional sanctions on North Korea. He is trying to emphasize the wrongs North Korea has committed, and keep the country’s leaders in check at a time when they will attempt to cover over their blighted past.
That is important, but we must also remember that our example of freedom and openness will best encourage reform in North Korea, perhaps more so than the threat of military action. When North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho appeared at President Trump’s State of the Union address, Trump said his story was “a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom.” The U.S. is currently well-poised to encourage the spread of freedom in North Korea. If, however, we foment a nuclear conflict in the region, American prestige, security, and prosperity will greatly suffer. What’s more, the cost of such bellicosity will not just impact American lives. Preemptive military action on our part could result in further imprisonments, oppression, death, and even a refugee crisis among North Korea’s citizenry.
The U.S. entered the Iraq War out of fears regarding weapons of mass distraction, but the war was also marketed as an opportunity to effect regime change for oppressed Iraqi citizens. In March 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney argued, “I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”
But in Iraq, we learned that our efforts at liberation may not have the intended impact. While the idealism inherent in our efforts at regime change and nation-building may have been understandable, even laudable, radical intervention has been catastrophic in practice. Since 2003, Iraq has suffered great civil and social unrest, the violent rise of ISIS, and a refugee crisis of monumental proportions. Fractures and instability that the U.S. caused during the Iraq War unintentionally provoked many of these consequences. We should be extremely cautious before attempting to repeat such a strategy elsewhere in the world. Spreading democracy through military force is costly and ineffective — the last 16 years have proved that.
The Pyeongchang games give us the opportunity to try a more measured and diplomacy-focused approach. Rather than using bellicosity or military clout to threaten them, the games could serve as a diplomatic tool — an opportunity to draw North Korea into a conversation and a company that contradicts the restrictions and stereotypes promoted inside their own borders. The North Koreans may desire to participate in similar events in the future. If so, Pyeongchang could be our opportunity to set the tone for future encounters.
Engaging with North Korea in a productive manner is essential. The more we directly interact with them on our terms, and on U.S.-friendly territory, the better. The 2018 Olympic games have presented us with that opportunity. Let’s hope all U.S. representatives use it to the advantage of the American people they are sworn to represent.