Wednesday it was announced that at the Winter Olympics next month, delegations from North and South Korea will march together under a flag representing a unified Korea. Before you start popping champagne bottles or using white-out on your map of North and South Korea, let’s pause and consider what led to this announcement and what good could possibly come from it.
First, a recap of what led to this sudden easing of tensions between North and South: On New Year’s Day, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made his annual speech, in which he made an overture to the government in Seoul, saying he wants peace with the South and is open to talks about North Korea sending a delegation to the Winter Olympics.
South Korea’s president, Moon Jae In, leapt (or was it pole-vaulted?) at the chance, quickly arranging high-level talks and a long-sought postponement of scheduled joint drills with the United States. Those talks, which leave the nuclear issue off the table, led to an announcement that a small number of North Korean athletes would indeed participate in the games. Then came Wednesday’s announcement.
In addition to marching together under the unified flag, South Korea will send some of its athletes to train at a ski resort in North Korea and attend some kind of cultural event. South and North Korea will also jointly form a women’s ice hockey team. North Korea is also sending 230 cheerleaders to the Olympics. Even more bizarre, according to The New York Times, “negotiators agreed that supporters of both Koreas would root together for athletes for both countries.”
So South Koreans Should Root for Their Enemy?
At first glance, this might seem like a sensible agreement: neither country wants to stir up nationalistic rivalries by rival fans cheering for their own countrymen and women. Things are tense enough already. And why not sprinkle some extra fairy dust on the gathering and have the two countries pretend that they are both equally seeking peaceful re-unification?
Upon further reflection, however, the plans for the Olympic Games reveal themselves as ridiculous and shameful. What about the fact that North Korea is, in a sense, holding the South hostage with a massive arsenal of conventional weapons pointed at Seoul? The threat of attacking the South Korean capital is part of Pyongyang’s insurance policy against the United State, or anyone else, launching a pre-emptive or preventive strike, or invading the country. Why shouldn’t South Koreans be allowed to root solely for their own country — and not for the one that represents an existential threat to their capital and millions of their countrymen?
Taking a step back, what is North Korea even doing at the Olympics? Again, one could argue this is a prime opportunity for easing tensions and reminding everyone on both sides of this conflict that countries are made up of people, and that if we can just connect with one another, we’ll see there’s no need for all this saber-rattling.
This is, after all, what the modern Olympics is all about. The Olympic flag says it all: Five conjoined rings, meant to represent the five inhabited continents, that are unified, interconnected, inseparable. The games symbolize nations coming together across the globe.
Yet the Olympics are also about athletes competing for their nation and citizens cheering for their countries. Much like American football, which is essentially a pacified version of traditional field battle, the Olympics is a stand-in for war. Countries fight each other in different arenas to see who will be the victor. All throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, dozens of countries have sent their athletes to compete on the international stage, to bring their own countries glory and honor.
The idea is to be a proxy for war, so that war is no longer necessary. If we transfer our zeal for war onto the track or into the gymnasium, then perhaps war can be avoided. But that is far from reality. The reality is that feel-good participation in the Olympic Games with the most notorious country in the world will do nothing to bring about world peace.
This Looks Like a Win for a Mass-Murdering Regime
To the government in Seoul, the Olympics offer an opportunity to break the stalemate, normalize relations, and bring down the overall temperature of the crisis with North Korea. In the minds of South Korea’s leaders, this could be a historic first step toward long-lasting peace. But from Kim Jong Un’s perspective, it looks like an international organization is allowing his country to attend the games despite him threatening to use nuclear weapons on several of the other countries in attendance, and his rival to the south is acknowledging that the two countries should be unified by marching under the same flag and forming a joint hockey team.
Kim and his cruel regime will be validated not just by the spectacle of North Korea’s presence at the games, but by South Korea’s obsequious agreement to partake in a farce about unity between the two countries. It only gives the authoritarian Kim regime some of the credibility it so eagerly desires, not to mention buying it time. Let’s not mince words: North Korea is a country that has impoverished, starved, and enslaved its people, and it should be wholly isolated until it shows signs that it’s willing to change. That includes barring it from the Olympics.
The stories that have come out of the forced-labor camps are heartbreaking, like the one from Shin Dong-hyuk, who was raised in a labor camp and later escaped to South Korea. At age 14, in exchange for food, he snitched to a guard about two other prisoners who were planning an escape. Those fellow prisoners — his mother and brother — were executed. Shin says he believed at the time that they deserved to die. Details of life in those camps show the absolutely inhumanity of the Kim regime.
Then there’s the mass starvation. In the 1990s famine killed, by some estimates, more than three million North Koreans. Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, eventually opened the country to international aid in exchange for supposedly ending its nuclear program, something the Kim family has never been serious about. Now, North Korea stands poised to face another famine as the Kim regime diverts much of its money and resources to nuclear and ballistic missile programs, bringing harsh economic sanctions. The Kims do not now, nor have they ever, cared about the suffering of the North Korean people.
The Implied Moral Equivalence Is Sickening
The country is essentially a vast prison. North Koreans suffer from widespread malnutrition and constant fear of their government. Some are sent abroad to work as slave laborers in China and Russia. Now, those peoples’ grief and misery will be mocked by a sham of a ceremony in South Korea in which everyone will pretend that the two countries are on the same side, root for the same teams, and want the same things.
All of this Olympic Games hubbub will also buy the Kim regime time. Pyongyang is preparing to test a submarine-launched ballistic missile with a new submersible barge, leading some to speculate that Pyongyang is using the Olympic talks with South Korea as a stalling tactic to complete its nuclear weapons program. The ongoing talks have already turned sour, with North Korea demanding on Tuesday that the South return North Korean defectors, repeating a familiar pattern.
Next month, two countries, long-separated following a bitter war and today in the midst of a tenuous nuclear crisis, will march together as though none of those realities were true. And the Kim regime will have the last laugh.