In six months, more than 2,500 athletes from 90 or so nations will bring their skis, skates and snowboards to South Korea to participate in the Winter Olympics. Barely 100 miles to the north and 100 miles to the west of PyeongChang are a pair of North Korean military bases responsible for 19 missile tests in recent years.
The world’s biggest sporting event will take place in February unusually close to threats and dangers that have triggered alarms and concerns around the globe in recent days. The rhetoric was turned up yet another notch Friday morning when President Trump warned on Twitter that the United States was “locked and loaded” and said, “Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!”
Still, for those in South Korea, the specter of peril has long existed in the background of everyday life, and Olympic officials are moving ahead with plans to stage the Winter Games in PyeongChang, a mountainous region about 80 miles east of Seoul, the nation’s capital. The sports will be contested about 40 miles from the demilitarized zone.
“We are monitoring the situation on the Korean Peninsula and the region very closely,” a spokesman with the International Olympic Committee said Friday. “The IOC is keeping itself informed about the developments. We continue working with the organizing committee on the preparations of these Games, which continue to be on track.”
The IOC selected PyeongChang as its 2018 host city in 2011, well aware of North Korea’s hostile relations with its neighbor to the south and the United States. Security is a major undertaking with every Olympics, and each staging of a Summer or Winter Games presents unique challenges and potential threats. The Salt Lake City Games took place five months after the 9/11 attacks. More recently, the 2014 Sochi Games were held not far from extremist forces from the North Caucasus, and the Russian government used 40,000 security forces to protect the Winter Olympics.
While there’s been speculation that North Korea could play a role in assisting the PyeongChang Olympics — possibly lending use of a North Korean ski resort or helping field an inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team — nothing has been formalized.
The United States probably will send more than 200 athletes to compete in PyeongChang. Many more support personnel, coaches, sponsors, family members and friends are expected to make the trip, with many stationed in Seoul.
“Each host city presents a unique challenge from a security perspective,” said Patrick Sandusky, USOC spokesman, “and as is always the case, we are working with the organizers, the U.S. State Department and the relevant law enforcement agencies to ensure that our athletes, and our entire delegation, are safe.”
The February Olympics will mark the second time South Korea has hosted an Olympics. The 1988 Summer Games were held in Seoul. North Korea boycotted those Games.
While many in Seoul are accustomed to potential dangers posed by North Korea, Trump has shown a willingness to match the rhetoric, promising this week “fire and fury,” which prompted North Korea to threaten an attack on Guam.
“This time isn’t any different from the North Korean side — they haven’t done that much different than in the past,” David Kang, director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, told The Washington Post.
“Kim Jong Un may be testing more missiles, but essentially their behavior is not any different. The big thing we keep missing about North Korea is that their threats are always the second half of a sentence, and we ignore the first half. North Korea consistently says, ‘If the United States attacks us first, we will fight back.’ The only thing that gets reported in the U.S. media is the second clause, not the first.”
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