Have the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games turned into the Pyongyang Games? Hardly.
But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has seized the Olympic spotlight with the agreement athletes from both sides of the demilitarized zone will march under a unified flag during opening ceremonies at the Winter Olympics next month in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The International Olympic Committee signed off on the deal Saturday. North Korea will send 22 athletes, including a group of women’s hockey players who will join South Korean players to field a combined women’s team. North Koreans also will compete in figure skating, short-track speed skating, cross-country skiing and Alpine skiing.
The North Korean delegation will include some splash — a 230-member cheer squad, dancers, an orchestra and North Korean pop diva Hyon Song-wol, whose hit, “A Girl in the Saddle of a Steed,” extols the virtues of a female textile worker. North Korea, shunned by much of the world for its hell-bent push to build its nuclear weapons arsenal, a country that has repeatedly vowed to annihilate Seoul in a “sea of fire,” now wants the world to think it embraces Olympic comity and fair play.
Forgive us if we don’t drink that sugary drink.
Of course, this sudden expression of unity beats the usual brinkmanship and fiery bluster we get from the Kim regime. But North Korea is adept at the game of freeze and thaw. This isn’t the first time the North has clasped hands with the South at an Olympiad — it did so at the Summer Games in Sydney in 2000. And when South Korea hosted the Asian Games in 2014, North and South Korean athletes appeared together under a unity banner. What followed? Three underground nuclear detonations and test launches of more than 40 ballistic missiles, including one capable of hitting Washington.
Kim’s strategy? Maybe to play peacemaker at a time when the Trump administration is pushing a strategy of pressure on Pyongyang through sanctions and threats of answering North Korean belligerence with “fire and fury.” It might be the sanctions are working, and Kim’s trying to push the U.S. to ease off. Or, he simply might be trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the U.S.
Pyongyang’s goals have been consistent through generations of Kim family leadership. Self-preservation of the regime. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea. And, eventually, reunification with the South, under Pyongyang rule.
That’s why the U.S. and South Korea have to tread carefully with Kim’s latest chess move. A few optimists in Washington might be heartened by this hint at rapprochement, but it’s not time to consider letting up on sanctions. Similarly, South Korea should think twice about the boundaries of this Olympic gesture.
There’s something else Seoul should consider. These Olympics mark the first time South Korea has ever hosted the Winter Games. It’s a landmark moment for Seoul, a source of immense national pride. South Korean athletes who have endured years of early morning workouts and aching bodies will march into Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium not under their own flag, but under a unity banner — a blue Korean Peninsula on a white background. The Olympics are about moments. Will that moment feel right to those athletes and their countrymen? Or will they feel sold out?
— Chicago Tribune