North Korean Participation in the Winter Games

For the first time since a table tennis championship and a children’s soccer tournament in the early 1990’s, North and South Korea are about to participate in a shared sporting event together, and this time the event will occupy a larger stage: the 2018 winter Olympics.

For those who haven’t been closely following the series of recent dialogue attempts taking place on the Korean peninsula, this seems like a surprising and possibly encouraging turn of events, especially since the dangerous dispute between North Korea and the United States has increased anxiety levels around the world with reckless rhetoric and threats associated with the country’s developing nuclear program. A month ago, we were concerned about the construction of a missile that could potentially bring a nuclear weapon to the United States mainland, and now North and South Korea appear so motivated to improve relations that their athletes will be marching under a shared flag during the winter games. What happened, and why?

A positive, but likely oversimplified answer: the Koreas see a mutual benefit in thawing relations, and both sides recognize a global sporting event as an opportunity to scale back tension and step away from escalating nuclear brinksmanship. Unfortunately, analysts and trained political observers recognize that North Korea’s leader may use the games to expand his reach and provide his regime with the appearance of greater legitimacy. Thawing tensions are only one part of what appears to be a long-term strategy to gain a broader foothold in the region.  It’s also possible that the gesture toward dialogue will frame North Korea’s leader as a cooperative member of the world community, and therefore motivate a release of US economic sanctions.

At this point, North Korea has missed the October deadline to receive athlete invitations from the International Olympic Committee, but the committee has offered to consider wild card entries from the country, and an ice hockey team representing athletes from both nations will compete against a team from Japan on February 14th. Learn more by clicking here and stay tuned as we follow the events leading up to the games.