The Opening Ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in South Korea are nearing, but at the same time, tensions between the United States and North Korea are rising. With the 2018 Games set to be held in PyeongChang, approximately 50 miles from the demilitarized zone between the two Korean states, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Wednesday that it was an “open question” whether Team USA would participate.
Her comment drew a swift response from Olympic and NBC officials Thursday and a further explanation from the U.S. mission to the U.N.
Speaking with Fox News’s Martha MacCallum, Haley said that the United States would take “every precaution” to ensure the safety of its athletes. Asked if she would “feel comfortable” sending a family member who was on Team USA to PyeongChang, Haley replied, “I think it depends on what’s going on at the time in the country.”
“We have to watch this closely, and it’s changing by the day,” she added.
A spokesperson for the U.S. mission to the United Nations expanded on her remarks, telling The Post on Thursday: “The United States looks forward to participating in the Winter Olympics in South Korea next year. As always, the protection of American citizens overseas is our most important priority. We remain closely engaged with the South Koreans and other partner nations to secure the venues as we do every Olympics. As Ambassador Haley said, ‘We will make sure that we’re taking every precaution possible to make sure that they’re safe and to know everything that’s going on around them.’ Ambassador Haley also said we would not live our lives in fear.”
Mark Jones, a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee, downplayed Haley’s concerns as premature, saying in a statement: “We have not had any discussions, either internally or with our government partners, about the possibility of not taking teams to the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. We plan on supporting two full delegations in PyeongChang.”
The Olympics may be fast approaching, but no one seems worried — yet.
“We haven’t heard anyone saying they aren’t coming,” Nancy Park, spokeswoman for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, said after Haley’s comments. “We have regular communication with the [United States Organizing Committee] and they always express their commitment of the athletes coming over to PyeongChang.”
A spokesperson for NBC, which will broadcast the Games, said the network is monitoring the situation: “As with every Games, the safety of our employees is always our number one consideration. As a result, we are in close contact with numerous security agencies, including the U.S. State Department, which continues to advise us that it is safe for Americans to travel to South Korea. The USOC has said that they plan on supporting their full Olympic and Paralympic delegations in PyeongChang, and we have no plans to change our preparation for the Games, which are in full swing.”
Local business are not concerned, according to The Post’s Yoonjung Seo, who is in PyeongChang. “The U.S. team hasn’t made a clear decision yet so I’m not too worried about it at this moment,” said Cho Hyun-sub, who opened a dumpling store right across from the main Olympic stadium three months ago. Maybe I’ve become desensitized to the North Korean threat, but I’m not worried about it much because I have full confidence in the military capability of my country and the U.S.”
That capability was on display Wednesday when the U.S. flew a supersonic bomber over South Korea, part of a week-long slate of military exercises intended to send a strong warning to North Korea. That country launched an intercontinental ballistic missile last week that demonstrated a potential, at least theoretically, to deliver a nuclear warhead to Washington, D.C.
Shortly after that missile test, Haley said at an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council that “continued acts of aggression” from North Korea could lead to war, and that “if war comes, make no mistake — the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.”
On Wednesday, Haley was asked by MacCallum, “In terms of the threat of potential military action in that region … do you think it is safe for [U.S. athletes] to go there in this environment?”
“I think those are conversations we are going to have to have, but what have we always said? We don’t ever fear anything, we live our lives,” Haley said. ” . . . And certainly that is a perfect opportunity for all of them to go and do something they have worked so hard for.
“What we will do is, we will make sure that we’re taking every precaution possible to make sure that they’re safe, and to know everything that’s going on around them.”
“Is that a done deal — is the United States recommending that our team goes, or is that still an open question, in this environment?” MacCallum asked.
“There’s an open question. I have not heard anything about that, but I do know in the talks that we have — whether it’s Jerusalem, whether it’s North Korea — it’s always about, how do we protect the U.S. citizens in the area?”
If Team USA members and U.S. Olympic Committee officials are concerned about their safety in PyeongChang when the Games take place in February, they aren’t expressing much about that publicly.
“The proximity is close, but from what I understand, the Olympics is one of the safest places that you can be in terms of heightened security,” U.S. biathlete Lowell Bailey told The Post’s Adam Kilgore in September. “I really do trust that the Olympic Committee and the State Department are all very diligent and would never put their athletes in harm’s way. I wouldn’t say it’s something I never think about, but I’m confident we’re in good hands.”
“Should the unthinkable happen and there’s conflict between nations, that’s not an issue for the U.S. Olympic Committee to get involved in,” USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun said at the time. “Then it becomes an issue for the IOC and our nations to make decisions. So we’re preparing as if we’re going to go.”
Asked whether she had any hesitation about having her family come to PyeongChang to watch her compete, U.S. alpine skier Julia Mancuso said jokingly, “Not really. You could be like, ‘If you go down, we’re going down together.’ ”
Some NBC staffers are wary of signing up for their network’s on-site coverage of the Winter Games because “they’re afraid to get nuked,” the New York Post’s Page Six reported Monday, quoting a source. The source added that network employees are usually eager to work Olympic assignments.
The recent ICBM test has frustrated organizers of the Winter Games, who have grappled with low enthusiasm in the host country and lagging ticket sales. “It wouldn’t make sense for anyone to cancel tickets to PyeongChang because of fears about North Korea,” one organizer told the AP. “There’s no war; bombs aren’t being dropped on PyeongChang.”
The Games have occasionally been the scene of terrorist attacks, most notably in Munich in 1972, when members of a Palestinian organization killed 11 Israeli Olympians and a West German policeman. Two other fatal attacks occurred in 1996, when a pipe bomb exploded in Atlanta, killing one person and wounding dozens of others, and in 2008, when a knife-wielding assailant in Beijing killed an American businessman and wounded his wife and their tour guide.
Last month, the Trump administration placed North Korea back on the U.S.’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, but the South Korean government said that it would welcome athletes from its northern neighbor to compete in PyeongChang. North Korea has yet to indicate whether it will participate, having boycotted the Games the previous time South Korea hosted them, in the summer of 1988.
One country that won’t be sending its athletes to PyeongChang is Russia. The country was banned from the 2018 Games by the IOC on Tuesday for allegedly conducting a widespread doping program, although some individual Russian athletes may be allowed to compete.
Yoonjung Seo in PyeongChang and Rick Maese in Copper Mountain, Colo., contributed to this report.
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