Players from the North Korean women’s ice hockey team receive flowers from their South Korean teammates in Jincheon, South Korea, on January 25, 2018. (Kyodo via AP Images)
By Tim Shorrock | February 1, 2018 Originally published in The Nation
On February 9, in a scenario that would have been unimaginable to most Americans a month ago, North and South Korean athletes will march into the opening ceremonies of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games under a single blue-and-white flag meant to signify the symbolic unity of a country divided since 1945.
The historic event will culminate an intense month of diplomacy and delicate negotiations that began on January 1. That was when North Korea’s “Supreme Leader,” Kim Jong-un, accepted South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s longstanding invitation to participate in the Games, the first Olympics to be hosted by South Korea since the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul.
But the competition will take place in the shadow of a deepening confrontation between the United States and North Korea over Kim’s nuclear and missile program. That conflict, which seemed to reach a breaking point in January with a false alarm about a pending missile attack on Hawaii, has moved the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since 1953, according to the famous “Doomsday Clock” calculated every year by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
“With every threat, every reckless or contradictory tweet from the Commander-in-Chief of our military, we get a little bit further from a diplomatic solution and a little bit closer to war,” Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War combat veteran from Illinois, said in a January speech at Georgetown University shortly after returning from a trip to South Korea.
Trump upped the ante Tuesday night in a State of the Union address that completely ignored the hopeful drama about to unfold in South Korea.
Instead, his speech demonized North Korea as a “depraved” regime, echoing language previous presidents have used before launching wars. Taking a page from recent claims by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Trump announced that North Korea’s “reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons could very soon threaten our homeland,” and described his “campaign of maximum pressure to prevent that from happening.”
Rewriting history once again, Trump repeated his criticism of the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations for trying to use diplomacy to resolve the crisis. “Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation,” Trump said. “I will not repeat the mistakes of past administrations that got us into this dangerous position.”
His speech was preceded by weeks of reports that Trump and his advisers, led by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, are seriously contemplating taking military action—referred to as a “bloody-nose strike”—to punish Kim for his nuclear threats and the human-rights violations of his government.
The message was underscored hours before Trump took the podium, when The Washington Post reported that Victor Cha, a former official with the Bush administration, had been rejected as US ambassador to South Korea.
The reason, White House sources told the Post, was that Cha, a hawkish official with the Pentagon-backed Center for Strategic and International Studies, had told the White House that he disagreed with the proposals for an attack. “This story is causing shock-waves in South Korea,” Anna Fifield, the Post’s Korea correspondent and Tokyo bureau chief, immediately tweeted. “Victor Cha is well known there and people were reassured he was being sent.”
Cha essentially confirmed that the “bloody nose” strategy was being considered when he wrote an op-ed for the Post that warned Trump against escalating the crisis “into a war that would likely kill tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Americans.”
After sketching out an aggressive alternative that would include expanding maritime interdiction of North Korean vessels, Cha concluded, “Force will be necessary to deal with North Korea if it attacks first, but not through a preventive strike that could start a nuclear war.”
Back in Seoul, which sits just 30 miles from the border, where any war would begin, the two-week “Olympic Truce” with Pyongyang is seen by many citizens as a chance to show that dialogue and reconciliation is possible, even under such tense conditions.
Under the agreements reached with Pyongyang since January 1, the two sides have formed a joint women’s hockey team that will play as “Korea,” and they’re planning a series of cultural events in Seoul and other cities where North Korean artists, including its famous, all-women Moranbong pop group, will entertain their southern cousins (one of its favorites: the theme from Rocky).
Shortly after the first official Northern delegation came to Seoul to discuss these arrangements, President Moon pleaded for international support for the Olympic peace process. “We must work to make the South-North Korea dialogue lead to talks between the United States and North Korea,” he declared in a weekly address on January 22. “Only then can we peacefully resolve the North Korean nuclear issue.”
Kim Jong-un’s government was equally excited—not about nuclear negotiations, which it spurned in the initial Olympic talks with South, but about the joint festivities.
“It’s a gesture for peace and security in the region,” a North Korean diplomat at the United Nations told People magazine in a rare example of outreach to the North by a US media outlet. “The Games are a good step for the national reconciliation of all Koreans.” Altogether, 22 North Korean Olympians will be competing in Pyeongchang.
Not everything with the Games has gone smoothly, however. Some South Koreans, especially younger citizens, were unhappy about the joint hockey team, whose formation was announced without any advance notice to the team or its coach, a dual citizen of the United States and Canada.
The critics say that “being forced to come together at the last minute [could] damage the existing team’s camaraderie and can be seen, especially from the outside, as preferential treatment being given to unqualified North Korean athletes,” Kim Haeyoon, a freelance journalist living in Seoul, wrote in The Diplomat.
Still, Moon’s Olympic outreach and his attempts to ease tensions with Pyongyang have been broadly accepted by young people like herself, the 20-something Kim told The Nation.
In an interview, she said some of the resentment about the joint team stemmed from the competitive nature of South Korean society. “Preferential treatment exclusively given to certain group of people can easily antagonize young people here, who are struggling every day to excel in schools and job markets,” she said.
Public opinion bears this out. In one of the first polls conducted after the announcement of the North’s participation, nearly 80 percent favored the decision. But after the flap about the hockey team, a majority, 58.7 percent, opposed formation of the joint hockey team, while 37.7 percent supported it. But on the issue of the North and South marching under one flag into the Olympics, there was majority support, with 51 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed.
Meanwhile, despite the pro-engagement mood in the country, South Korea’s vocal right wing has been busily castigating Moon for his opening to the North. In a sign of the right’s intense hostility to any sign of cooperation with the North, conservative protesters tried to disrupt the public inspections of South Korean facilities by Northern officials visiting Seoul and attacked the Moon government as dominated by communist sympathizers.
The opposition to the North is led by Hong Jun-pyo, leader of the Liberty Korea Party, which split from the ruling party last year over the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye. He was the leading conservative in the presidential elections last May, garnering 24 percent of the vote to Moon’s 41 percent in the five-way race.
“The Pyeongchang Olympics are being twisted into the Pyongyang Olympics through the manipulation of Kim Jong-un’s disguised peace offensive,” Hong declared early on, adding that Moon wants to manipulate the Olympics politically so he can “pass a socialist constitution.” (“Such ridiculous red-baiting defies logic,” the liberal Hankyoreh editorialized in response. “These attempts to present the Olympics as a communist event because of North Korea’s participation could make us an international laughingstock.”)
The dissent, which has been unusual for the popular Moon, has been seized on and exaggerated by the US media as a sign of Korean hostility to his engagement policies toward the North. Last week, for example, The New York Times ran a story about the response to a North Korean delegation to Seoul entitled “Protesters in Seoul Burn Image of Kim Jong-un During North Koreans’ Visit.” The alarming headline and the story itself gave a false impression of a near-riot of Seoul citizens against the North.
But the piece, which was datelined Hong Kong, failed to mention that the fiery protest involved only a handful of people and was led by Representative Cho Won-jin of the one-seat Patriotic Party of Korea. Apparently the reporter didn’t know that Cho’s party is so extreme that it broke with the conservative Hong last year over Park’s impeachment and considers Moon to be an illegitimate president.
Partly in response to the rightist protests, on Tuesday North Korea said it was canceling a joint cultural event the two governments were planning in the North to celebrate the Olympics in early February. This action “brings inter-Korean relations, which have been showing signs of improvement recently, to a crucial crossroads,” Hankyoreh reported.
Pyongyang’s cancellation was also a response to South Korean officials’ saying they were concerned about reports that North Korea was planning to stage a military parade in Pyongyang on February 8. That date, one day before the opening ceremony at the Olympics, marks the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.
The parade “is likely to be a quite intimidating event involving a significantly large number of soldiers and nearly all the weapons at North Korea’s disposal,” South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon declared. But in a significant aside that seemed to indicate Seoul’s deeper interest in peace talks, he noted that the US-South Korean military exercises opposed by the North had been rescheduled for March 25. “The key is to lead the US and North Korea to initiate dialogue under those circumstances and during that time,” he said.
There were no such signals from Washington, where the events in Korea were used by hard-liners to buttress their belief that Moon is being manipulated by Kim Jong-un. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham set the pace on January 17, when he declared that “the signals” South Korea is sending to North Korea are “undercutting what Trump is trying to do.”
In fact, like Trump’s speech, the White House has by and large ignored the Korean Olympics thaw. In January, just as the Olympics talks were getting under way, the Pentagon and the US Air Force deployed nuclear-armed B-52 Stratofortress bombers and B-2 Stealth bombers to the US base in Guam, where the US fleet of conventional B1-B bombers has been stationed during the crisis.
This was only the second time in history that the three kinds of aircraft had been together in one place, Navy Times reported. They are there to reinforce the US Pacific Command’s “continuous bomber presence mission” aimed at North Korea, US officials said.
The same day, Representative Mac Thornberry, the Republican chair of the House Armed Services Committee, informed reporters that the US military was conducting “very serious” training for a military conflict with Pyongyang. The Trump administration is “looking at what would be involved with military options when it comes to North Korea,” he said.
Vice President Mike Pence, who will attend the Pyeongchang Games as Trump’s representative, added to the tensions on January 23 by accusing North Korea of trying to “hijack the Olympics…in terms of optics and messaging.” His comment, and the Pentagon’s deployment of its nuclear-armed strategic bombers to the region, prompted a senior North Korean official to contact the Washington Post journalist who reported it, Jenna Johnson.
In an interview with Johnson, Pak Song-il, North Korea’s UN ambassador, accused Trump of advocating “confrontation” at what he called “the sacred place of Olympic Games.” He added, “This only shows how weak their motives are and how shameful their ways of thinking are.”
Meanwhile, even as Trump was speaking Tuesday night, cooperation on the peninsula continued. On Wednesday, the two Koreas announced they will stage four joint taekwondo demonstrations in South Korea on February 7 to celebrate the Olympics. “The North Korean squad will travel to the South by land, across the border,” Yonhap reported.
Symbolically, that crossing will speak volumes: That border is the most militarized dividing line in the world today.
Tim Shorrock is a Washington, DC–based journalist and the author of Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing, and a Korea Policy Institute Associate.