How North Korea is capitalizing on Olympic diplomacy
Fifty miles from arguably the most fortified border in the world, two nations marched together under a single, hopeful flag of peace. In the stands, the sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, sat right behind high representatives from her country’s sworn enemies, South Korea and the United States. Relations are thawing, and a peaceful transition will now bring North Korea into the rest of the world, right?
Some believe that North Korea shouldn’t be at the games at all. There are many who state the International Olympic Committee IOC should have instituted a ban, similar to the one imposed on the unwelcomed apartheid-era South Africa. The North Korean regime, a longstanding antagonist of global security and general human dignity, understands the stakes and opportunities at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. It is essentially a global stage for a country that rarely seeks or receives one.
The Olympics have often been the site for many diplomatic chapters in our world’s history, amplifying issues on a global stage. The 1936 games in Nazi Germany saw Jesse Owens and the University of Washington’s men’s crew team (literally) blow Hitler’s team out of the water.
Throughout the Cold War, the Olympics were seen as the substitute for the lack of real fighting between the two contending superpowers, the US and USSR. Who could forget the Miracle on Ice in 1980, when the U.S. hockey team delivered a major upset to the defending Soviets? Pyeongchang is no different.
It is important that the world takes North Korea’s actions with a grain of salt. Just last week, the regime held yet another one of its typical military parades to pound their chests, displaying their ballistic missile arsenal in front of helpless, uniformed spectators. Last week’s parade was complete with tanks, among other parts of its million-strong, goose-stepping, jackbooted army.
With the absence of free markets and global trade, the North Korean government continuously fails to ensure prosperity for their people. Even the dictatorship’s strongest trading partnerships and quasi-alliances with China and Russia fail to produce a standard of living on par with its neighbors.
Recently, “ghost ships” have been washing up on Japan’s western shores with no life on board, only the corpses of desperate families trying to flee. In 2014, the UN asserted that Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship was conducting “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, [and] persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds.”
The lucky few who have escaped North Korea tell tales of a desolate place where children are raised believing the US is their “sworn enemy.” The North Korean propaganda machine has skillfully performed an extensive barrage of anti-US sentiment for the past sixty years. Virtually every problem North Korea has experienced, from the severe famine the country experienced in the late 1990s (which killed upwards of 3 million people), to the lack of Internet in the country, is attributed by its government to the West.
Intense escalation between North Korea and the U.S. reached an all-time high this summer as President Trump became more and more critical of Kim Jong-un’s regime. Despite this tension in foreign relations, Jong-un recently invited the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in to Pyongyang for bilateral talks, which Jae-in accepted. This is all occurring in the midst of the United States purporting to initiate its toughest rounds of sanctions yet, potentially driving a large wedge between the long-standing allies.
De-escalation, not normalization, should be the world’s attitude toward North Korea. While bilateral talks with South Korea are appreciated, they cannot begin a process of normalization and acceptance of North Korea’s actions. Years of neglect and outright cruelty towards their citizens cannot be forgotten, and while I sincerely believe South Korea understands the gravity of the situation, it is important for them to be vigilant nonetheless.