So far, the reviews range from visionary to foolish.
“It’s a ridiculous idea — and it’s immoral,” said human rights activist Suzanne Scholte, president of the Defense Forum Foundation.
“To suggest that the two countries could jointly sponsor an Olympic bid is to ignore the atrocities being committed against the North Korean people every day, and it diminishes South Korea’s standing as a vibrant republic to put the two nations on the same footing.”
The leaders of North and South Korea proposed the idea of a joint Olympic bid when they met in Pyongyang in September 2018, perhaps the high point in their relationship.
The following February, officials from both Koreas told an International Olympic Committee meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, of their intention to bid. At the time, IOC President Thomas Bach welcomed the idea as a historic initiative that showed “how sport can once more make a contribution to peace on the Korean Peninsula and the world.”
Two weeks later, President Trump’s Hanoi summit with Kim ended acrimoniously, and the relationship between the two Koreas disintegrated.
Today, Pyongyang refuses to even talk to Seoul, communicating only through state media with scorn and insults.
So hostile is the atmosphere that North Korea actually withdrew its women’s soccer team from the running for this year’s Tokyo Olympics because the qualifying tournament for Asia is being held in South Korea.
So sensitive are North Korean authorities that a World Cup qualifier between the men’s soccer teams of both Koreas was played in an empty stadium in Pyongyang last October, with media, broadcasters and even local fans completely excluded.
The idea that the relationship between the two Koreas would be stable enough to allow for years of cooperation to stage an event of this magnitude, and that the world’s media and millions of spectators would be free to attend and enjoy the Games with minimal restrictions, many analysts say, is simply pie in the sky.
“President Moon lives in a different, la-la land universe when it comes to perceptions of North Korea,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “His proposal for the joint Olympics is a moon shot of epic proportions, built on unbridled Sunshine Policy optimism that is totally divorced from the current political reality.”
Imagine, critics say, the Olympic stadium in the North built with forced labor — facing even more criticism than Qatar’s use of migrant labor for its World Cup facilities.
Imagine an incident in North Korea similar to when U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte and three other swimmers were accused by police in Rio de Janeiro of vandalizing a gas station bathroom at the 2016 Summer Games. And then remember how college student Otto Warmbier was imprisoned for alleged vandalism — allegedly taking down a poster while visiting Pyongyang — and ended up in a coma before dying shortly after his return to the United States.
The Olympic movement has strayed into worrisome territory before. The Games staged in Nazi Germany in 1936 were exploited by Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine. The 2008 Games in Beijing were supposed to help improve the country’s human rights record. Today, there are calls to boycott China’s 2022 Winter Games over Beijing’s mass incarcerations of Uighurs from its mostly-Muslim west.
North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. But then it surprised many by sending a team to the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang. North Korean athletes marched alongside their South Korean counterparts at the Opening Ceremonies under a unification flag. The two Koreas even fielded a unified women’s ice hockey team. Since then, trust and dialogue has disintegrated, but Moon will not be deterred.
This month, he twice repeated his determination to use the Olympics to build closer ties, in a New Year’s speech and a televised news conference, proposing to send a unified Korean team in several events to Tokyo this summer and then bid for the 2032 Games.
Seoul will host the Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2024 and would like the North to share responsibilities then, too — something the IOC said it would accept “if the circumstances allow.”
Lee Jin-ku, who runs the Olympic promotion division of the Seoul Metropolitan Government, said planning for 2032 has hit a wall due to the stalemate in U.S.-North Korea relations. But he said his government will continue to make the “utmost effort.”
“If the two Koreas work together and build confidence for Olympics preparations over the course of 12 years, we expect the social environment to mature enough” for them to jointly host the Olympics, he wrote in an email.
Moon’s supporters say his stubborn optimism has created a historic opportunity for peace. Critics say his optimism looks increasingly like naivete, and his failure to denounce human rights abuses in the North is increasingly unjustifiable.
“No person on the planet has a greater responsibility to the people of North Korea than the democratically elected president of South Korea,” said Scholte. “And yet Moon has turned his back on their suffering.”
An IOC decision on the 2032 Games is expected by 2025. Any host would also have to abide by the Olympic Charter and the Host City Contract, IOC spokesman Mark Adams said.
“Among the fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter it is clearly stated that there can be no ‘discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin,’ ” he said. The host city must respect workers’ rights and human rights.
Ahn Chan-il, a North Korea defector who runs a research institute in Seoul, said it’s possible to envision the Olympics in Pyongyang only “if we presuppose a change in the regime.”
Bruce Klinger of the Heritage Foundation sees desperation in Moon’s bid to regain momentum in inter-Korean cooperation, and double standards globally.
“The world shunned South Africa from the Olympics but embraces North Korea despite far worse human rights atrocities,” he said.
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.