The North Korean Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, extended an invitation to South Korea to participate in talks about sending a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics. “North and South must work together to alleviate the tensions and work together as a people of the same heritage to find peace and stability,” stated Kim in his Monday address.
The Supreme Leader’s address was not without a show of might, however, as he also warned the United States that, “The entire mainland of the US is within the range of our nuclear weapons and the nuclear button is always on the desk of my office.”
Moon Jae-in, President of South Korea, was enthusiastic about the proposal and stated that Kim Jong-un’s speech was “a response to our proposal to turn the Pyeongchang Olympic Games into an epoch-making opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations and establish peace.”
This continues the Olympics’ long history of being used as a tool for political means. The most notable example of this is when Nazi Germany hosted the Olympics in 1936 and the Fuhrer took the opportunity to display his superior Aryan race to the world. Hitler only allowed Aryan athletes, causing much debate around the world and many countries to question their participation in the games.
In 1980, only 80 countries participated in the Moscow games, with the rest boycotting Soviet Russia, which in turn caused the country to boycott the 1984 Los Angeles games.
Even recent Olympics have been used as a tool for political powers. The 2014 games in Sochi were the subject of protest from citizens of Georgia because the Russia had expanded its Olympic security zone into a neighboring territory. The 2016 games in Rio were rife with political controversy as the President was being considered for impeachment for giving kickbacks to the state-run oil company and the construction companies in charge of creating the Olympic stadium.
While the relationship between the US and North Korea may seem like a unique situation to the games, it’s just another tick on a long timeline of political controversy surrounding the international event. Some news reports even suggest that Kim Jong-un’s sudden willingness to unite with his neighbors in the south is just a political move.
Fortune’s Scott Snyder claims,“[t]he clear objective of Kim’s dialogue offer to Moon Jae-in is to test South Korean willingness to trade short-term South Korean interests in peace and stability around next month’s Olympics for longer-term economic and security concessions. Those concessions – on timing of military exercises and restrictions on cash flows to North Korea – could compromise effectiveness of the US-Republic of Korea alliance and the US-led international economic pressure strategy against North Korea.”
Essentially, North Korea would want the US and South Korea to cease military preparations in exchange for a peaceful event and potential subsidies from the South to send North Korean athletes.
And like Hitler did in the 1936 games, Snyder believes “[f]or Kim Jong Un […] North Korean triumphs will be celebrated widely and will be used internally to legitimize his dictatorial rule […].” Kim himself admitted that having North Korean athlete’s compete would “serve as a good chance to display our […] people’s grace toward the world.”
Truthfully, North Korea’s involvement in the Olympics is not about having a peaceful event at all, but about scoring political brownie points. Strategically, it is probably better for Kim Jong-un to appear reasonable for his people’s perceptions and the world’s perception. Regardless, the traditional Olympic political debates continue on.
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