This surprising moment of harmony came together very quickly. In a meeting last month, North Korea and South Korea agreed that the former would participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics. The positive news continued to flow in the days after the announcement. One of Kim Jong Un’s favorite singers was dispatched to South Korea ahead of the Olympics, and North Korea agreed to send 22 athletes to participate, while also taking part in a joint Korean ice hockey team. This week the North announced that Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, would head its delegation to the opening ceremony — the first immediate member of the North Korean ruling family ever to visit South Korea.
Several media outlets hailed these “dramatic gestures,” even claiming the events marked a “thaw” in inter-Korean relations. And indeed, this harmony stands in stark contrast to the last time the two Koreas negotiated over Olympic Games held in South Korea. From 1985 to 1988, North Korea, South Korea and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) held ultimately unsuccessful talks aimed at securing North Korea’s involvement in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Yet this year’s success stems not from some great thaw but, rather, from changing North Korean priorities. In both cases, North Korea steadfastly stuck to its goals, which have shifted from a hard-line approach to one of engagement. This consistency is why we ought to be wary of making optimistic proclamations about North Korean participation in PyeongChang.
When Seoul won the right to host the Olympics in 1981, North Korean leaders were concerned. Fueled by their understandable fear that the Olympics would help legitimize South Korea as a sovereign state — the 1964 Tokyo Olympics had performed a similar function for Japan in the wake of World War II — North Korea’s power-brokers behaved throughout the talks as if they had a right to co-host the Olympics, which they perceived as the best way to blunt this potential benefit to South Korea. South Korea was in the middle of a democratic transition, and North Korea still harbored genuine, albeit unrealistic, hopes of reuniting the peninsula under northern rule. Hence further integration of South Korea into the international community was anathema to North Korea.
North Korea repeatedly tried to get the IOC and South Korea to agree to a joint organizing committee situated in Pyongyang with events split 50-50 between the two countries. It even sought the renaming of the games to the “Korea Pyongyang-Seoul Olympiad.”
The IOC rebuffed these ideas from the first meeting with attendees from both sides in October 1985. It proposed a compromise: North Korea could host several events, but the Games would remain South Korea’s. North Korea demurred, sticking to its clearly unrealistic aims long after the IOC had already rejected them.
Even when North Korea did engage in discussions about hosting some events, it consistently made unworkable demands. For example, in October 1985, South Korea, under no obligation to include North Korea in any fashion, offered to move the handball and volleyball qualifiers and half of the soccer group fixtures to North Korea, while the 180 km cycling route could weave in and out of the two Koreas. North Korea responded by asking to stage 11 events, including arguably the three biggest sports — track and field, gymnastics and swimming.
On its face, these demands seemed absurd. But from North Korea’s perspective, these unrealistic but consistent demands were necessary to prevent South Korea from enjoying the “coming out” party that would help legitimize it as a state and doom the North Korean dream of one Korea unified under northern rule. In November 1987, North Korea showed just what lengths it would go to in pursuit of this aim: North Korean agents blew up Korean Air Flight 858 in an unsuccessful attempt to disrupt the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Ahead of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, however, the conflict between the two Koreas is in a very different place. South Korea has gained the measure of legitimacy that North Korea aimed to prevent in the 1980s. It is a vibrant democracy, a member of many international organizations and trades heavily with China — which is also North Korea’s largest trading partner.
In 2018, North Korea’s foremost goal is the continuation of the latest iteration of the Kim regime. Through its nuclear and missile tests, North Korea has developed a powerful military deterrent to external threats. However, while recent sanctions might have done little to deter North Korea’s missile tests, the United Nations has suggested they are hurting people inside North Korea economically.
By participating in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, North Korea incurs few, if any, costs to its internal security, but it can present itself as a more reasonable actor on the international stage. Such actions contrast positively with President Trump’s unique brand of “diplomacy” toward North Korea. This furthers North Korean efforts to get sanctions reduced, which aids internal security by providing increased resources to alleviate the sanctions’ effects on ordinary North Koreans as well as the state’s coffers.
There is a reasonable argument that any engagement with North Korea is positive by means of a socialization process. However, we should not expect that 22 athletes or a joint ice hockey team will lead to any meaningful political change on the Korean Peninsula. Archival evidence from the 1980s suggests that North Korea engages — as illustrated by these two cases of Olympic Games in South Korea — when it is consistent with North Korean goals. Where the two nations’ goals diverge, compromise is still out of reach.