Keith Strudler: The Uneasy Olympic Truce

Jan 10, 2018

Here’s the good news. If you have tickets to February’s upcoming Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, there seems to be an ever so slightly better chance you’ll enjoy that experience without the inconvenience of a military exercise from North Korea. That’s not a guarantee, but an aspiration made more likely due to the relative and very recent detente between the Koreas, much predicated upon the upcoming Games themselves.

For perspective, as most of you know, these Winter Games will take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which is about 40 miles from the Korean demilitarized zone, the small strip of land that seemingly restrains the peninsula from utter chaos. That reality has made athletes, spectators, and, more broadly, global leadership fairly uneasy about the security of these Olympics, something that’s worrisome even in the most secure host sites, like say Australia or the US. But hosting the Games in South Korea is like swimming in a shark tank at the aquarium. It’s probably going to be okay, but very tense nonetheless. This tension has been escalated for two reasons. Simply put, they’re Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. In more detail, the escalating heat between the US and North Korea has turned the region into a steam kettle looking for a chance to explode. And North Korea has a history of using international sporting events to antagonize its Southern neighbor – and I suppose the rest of the globe. So there’s was no good reason to assume these Olympics would be anything less than a military opportunity for the rogue nation. The question wouldn’t be if, but rather how much.

Perhaps, just perhaps, that assumption has changed now that North and South Korea have just resumed dialogue, and, more specifically, North Korea has decided to participate in these upcoming Olympics – something that was not expected until now. In fact, North Korea hadn’t completed applications for its few qualifying athletes, something that would now be handled by exception once they apply. And the IOC has indicated they might also create wildcard entries for North Koreans in select individual sports, which would allow a handful of athletes to represent the nation. For perspective, none would be medal contenders, making their impact far more diplomatic than athletic.

In many regards, North Korea’s presence represents an assumed ethos of the Olympic movement – the idea that the Games would be an opportunity for peace and exchange through the vehicle of elite athletic competition. Obviously, that’s been as much propaganda as reality throughout Olympic history, dating from the intense supernationalism of the 1920’s and 30’s to the corruption and capitalism of today, where host cities and nations are often worse for their hospitality. But the IOC hopes these Games might be one in a larger step towards improved relations between the Koreas. That, and no nuclear war. That’s the hope at least.

I’d be hesitant to assume a couple of weeks of figure skating and skiing are going to accomplish all that. For all the aspirational talk about these Games, the Olympics have hardly created world peace. In fact, we’ve seen more than a few examples of countries violating the most basic of niceties of the Olympic truce, where everyone’s supposed to stop fighting for two whole weeks.  If anything, it seems the peaceful moments remain isolated to the field of play instead of creating anything outside the game, or Games itself. Which means that even though North and South Korea might compete, or even march together – which they’ve done before – it doesn’t mean we’re all good. Now granted, there’s a whole list of countries that won’t even play Israel in Olympic sport, so there’s that. But I’d suggest Olympic truce is more indicator that spark.

Perhaps just as relevant, this Olympic thawing between the Koreas does raise another equally important question. That is, while North Korea and Kim Jong-un might want to grace the Games with their attendance, should they be there in the first place? It’s easy to view the Olympics simply as an apolitical venue for global exchange and competition. But it’s also something of a validation. Which is why nations have been banned from Olympic competition throughout history, and not simply for things related to sport – like Russia right now with doping. Remember that South Africa was long banned for apartheid, Libya has been banned before, and a whole host of aggressor nations around the World Wars have been forced to earn their way back in. Perhaps the Olympics was something of a carrot. Or perhaps it’s a stick. Either way, it does feel just a bit odd to celebrate the participation of a nation that systematically represses its populace while essentially holding the world hostage. Just a thought, lest we get too excited about giving North Korea yet another propaganda bullet point.

Should they be there? I don’t know. Will it end global tensions around North Korea’s nuclear ambitions? I highly doubt it. Will it make the world safer during the Games themselves? For sure. And that, I suppose, is the good news.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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