SEOUL, Feb. 9 (Korea Bizwire) – The 2018 Winter Olympics, which officially kicked off today in PyeongChang, face the risk of being politicized by world leaders amid heightened geopolitical tensions on the Korean peninsula.
Playing politics at the Olympics is not entirely new, but the current political climate could see political agendas pushed by world leaders taking center stage during what is meant to be a neutral sporting event.
North Korea has been changing tone in recent weeks, with the decision to send an unprecedented high-level delegation to the Olympics including the supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong, and the de facto chief of state Kim Yong-nam being the latest example.
Last month, Pyongyang decided to send its art troupe to perform in South Korea including a 140-strong orchestra in celebration of the Olympics, in a move that many saw as an attempt to put out a friendlier image and deflect criticism against its nuclear and missile tests.
The change of attitude means that Pyongyang is feeling the pressure, according to Kim Yeon-Chul, a professor at Inje University and a former policy advisor to the Unification Minister.
“It’s not just South Korea, but the North also needs to de-escalate the situation. Amid mounting pressure and stronger sanctions that have isolated the country, it is likely that they felt the need to seek change,” Kim said.
Pyongyang’s presence and the government’s cooperation have been met with both praise and criticism here in South Korea, particularly over issues such as a united Korea flag and a united women’s ice hockey team.
According to a recent Gallup poll, a majority of South Koreans think highly of the decision to march together with the North, while more people disapprove of the inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team, signaling a divided public.
Adding tension to the Olympics is the move by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to invite Fred Warmbier, the father of American student Otto Warmbier, who died last year after serving 17 months in jail in North Korea.
Warmbier was arrested in North Korea in 2016 on charges of stealing a political poster and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. His return home in a vegetative state angered millions of Americans including his parents, prompting U.S. lawmakers to seek the ‘toughest’ economic sanctions to date against the regime.
Pence, who is visiting South Korea to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics, reportedly praised the elder Warmbier who was accompanying him today, calling him an advocate for North Korean defectors who fled the regime for freedom.
During a meeting with North Korea defectors, Pence said, “I am inspired by your bravery. Across the line of provocations you fled for freedom. I want to say that the American people stand with you.”
With Fred Warmbier, a ‘powerful witness’ in the words of U.S. President Donald Trump, attending the Olympics, North Korea’s charm offensive is being threatened by Pence’s hard-line policy.
Pence also attended a pre-Olympic opening ceremony reception hosted by President Moon Jae-in, but reportedly snubbed North Korean officials, making no physical contact with them.
Earlier this week, the Segye Times reported citing a diplomatic source that the U.S. government has asked South Korea to make sure that the American delegation led by Pence doesn’t cross paths with North Korean officials.
“The delegation’s visit and dialogue between the two Koreas won’t change the situation on the Korean peninsula immediately,” said Kim.
“What is more important is that the government bring together not only the North, but the U.S., Japan and China, and create momentum for conversation about North Korea’s nuclear weapons,” Kim said.
With both the U.S. and North Korea set to score political points over the next two weeks, President Moon’s engagement efforts are set to face challenges during what he has advocated as an Olympics of peace.
Hyunsu Yim (firstname.lastname@example.org)