Much of the athletic competition at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang was overshadowed by the tenuous geopolitical situation between North and South Korea, with the United States obviously in the mix as well. Originally, it seemed as if North Korea was not going to participate in the games, but North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reversed that stance on New Year’s Day, starting an inter-Korean dialogue to ensure that North Korea would be able to participate.
Each of the three countries approached the Olympics with a different geopolitical agenda and all three believed that the sporting events could serve as a vehicle for critical diplomacy. With the games finished, who came out on top in the grand Korean geopolitical scheme?
South Korea: Bridging Divides and Building Ties
South Korean President Moon Jae-in is widely known to favor a diplomatic approach to North Korea that emphasizes the commonalities between the two Koreas. Moon has made increasing inter-Korean dialogue a top priority for his government as a means to bridge social and political gaps between the two Koreas, with the ultimate goal of convincing North Korea to denuclearize. The Winter Olympics thus presented South Korea with an opportunity to continue healing its deep fracture with North Korea and show evidence of its diplomatic success to the rest of the world—most notably the United States, South Korea’s greatest ally on this issue and in general. Having this kind of success with inter-Korean relations was crucial for Moon coming into the Olympics, as he has promised to improve ties with the North in spite of President Donald Trump’s bellicosity.
The South Koreans' benevolent diplomatic approach was on display throughout the Olympics. South Korea went to great lengths at the very last minute to allow North Korea to participate in the games, and those efforts did not go unnoticed by Kim Jong-un, who was reportedly “very impressed” by the South. Moon’s government made the difficult decision to lift sanctions on North Korea and allow the North to send a delegation. South Korea also bore a significant monetary cost for the North, paying over $220 thousand for Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, to lead the North Korean delegation in South Korea. Kim Yo-jong is the only member of the Kim family ever to have been received in South Korea, and the size of the North Korean delegation is itself significant given the regime’s isolationism. In addition, South Korea allowed several sanctioned and controversial North Koreans to attend the closing ceremony.
North and South Koreans participated in the opening ceremony together, waving the Korean unification flag. Although this type of unifying act is not unprecedented—they have done the same at several past Olympics—the usage of the unification flag by North and South Korea represents a significant attempt to thaw tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul that have escalated since Trump assumed office. The unification flag is only shown at special occasions of inter-Korean unity, and South Koreans are usually hesitant to discuss it. The Koreas also fielded a joint hockey team that, despite losing all of its contests, was well-received in South Korea and worldwide.
The Moon government’s desire to have North Korea represented at the Winter Olympics seems to have paid dividends. Kim Yo-jong personally invited Moon to Pyongyang at Kim Jong-un’s request, which would be the first meeting of its kind between two Korean leaders in over a decade. Some in the South have been skeptical of North Korea’s intentions at the games and rightfully so. Still, a majority of South Koreans think Moon should travel to Pyongyang to engage with Kim Jong-un. The South Korean public’s receptiveness to this plan is a geopolitical and domestic win for Moon. He rose to power by campaigning ardently on his promise to facilitate closer ties on the peninsula, and he is steadily achieving that goal.
Of course, this friendlier approach towards North Korea has the potential drawback of seeming more like appeasement than actual relationship-building. By allowing North Korea to participate in the Olympics, South Korea risked giving Kim Jong-un an extended platform to further his regime’s goals, which do not necessarily align with South Korea’s, and clash with the United States, South Korea’s principal ally. In any case, Moon was willing to make those sacrifices if doing so would help him bring South and North Korea closer together. He has positioned himself and his government well to do that.
Moon is reportedly planning to accept Kim Jong-un’s offer. It will be interesting to see how he tries to balance his peacemaking approach with North Korea’s survivalist mentality—not to mention US reactions to future developments.
The United States: A War of Public Perception
North Korea’s eleventh-hour admittance to the Winter Olympics threw a wrench in US geopolitical plans relating to the games. When Vice President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea at the onset of the games, he found himself intervening in a highly complex geopolitical situation. The Trump administration has consistently maintained a hardline position against North Korea—both through increasingly tough sanctions and Trump’s infamous rhetoric attacking Kim Jong-un—and Pence clearly tried to embody that position at the games.
Pence’s presence at the Winter Olympics was largely aimed at combating what the Trump administration anticipated to be a North Korean charm offensive, which was arguably aided by South Korea’s relationship-building initiatives. Before the games began, Pence had already foreshadowed extreme US sanctions against North Korea and had declared that he would “seize every opportunity” to prevent Kim Jong-un from using North Korea’s delegation to propagandize his own regime in South Korea. Pence’s goals, while theoretically sound, seem to have been somewhat at odds with Moon’s, who welcomed North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics even at the cost of giving North Korea an accessible public platform.
If Pence was trying to do damage control to minimize North Korea’s publicity, he definitely did not do a great job. Pence and Kim Yo-jong sat within earshot of one another at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, but Pence ignored her which caused a stir in the American media. Given the remarkable circumstances that led the vice president and Kim Jong-un’s sister to be in such proximity, the fact that Pence did not initiate any conversation seems odd at first. Pence also did not stand when the joint Korean team appeared at the opening ceremony.
It is possible that Pence did not talk to Kim Yo-jong publicly because plans already existed for Pence to meet with her and other North Korean officials in private, which would honestly have been a rather incredible event. But the North Koreans purportedly pulled out right before the meeting was scheduled to take place. Since then, Trump has announced the tough sanctions Pence had hinted at, and Ivanka Trump represented the United States at the closing ceremony to advocate for the administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy in containing North Korea. Trump also floated, as he has before, the threat of direct military intervention, dubbed “phase two” of US-North Korea policy. Nevertheless, Ivanka stood for the joint Korean team at the closing ceremony, choosing not to follow Pence’s example.
It is difficult to say that the United States “lost” any geopolitical positioning at the Olympics, but it probably did not make much headway on the peninsula. If Pence wanted to truly combat the North Korean propaganda machine, addressing Kim Yo-jong at the opening ceremony and then relaying his words to the American media would have been much more effective than ignoring her and having a secretive meeting cancelled on him. Pence and his team seem to have been outsmarted: the North Koreans got to use the Olympics as a propaganda tool while avoiding a direct, public condemnation from Pence. Then, with their propaganda mission mostly done, they cancelled their private meeting with the vice president, where he was reportedly just planning to reiterate the Trump administration’s intolerance for North Korean ambitions.
Of course, Pence’s presence at the Winter Olympics was a statement in itself, and a strong one at that. But he could have done much more to confront North Korea’s public relations operation head-on and prevent Kim Yo-jong from taking advantage of the occasion. To his credit, Pence defended his trip at CPAC, criticizing the media’s “fawning” over Kim Yo-jong and drawing attention to her role in North Korea’s tyranny. Yet reminding the American or worldwide public about North Korea’s transgressions does not have the same impact because we already know all those things. Reminders about how awful North Korea’s regime is are helpful but not really vital to accomplishing the United States’ foreign policy goals on the Peninsula.
The United States could have used the Olympics to create a media stir in support of its foreign policy goals by having Pence confront Kim Yo-jong at the opening ceremony in a respectful but stern manner. That would have been an unprecedented act in US-North Korea relations for the media to latch onto, and the Trump administration could have used it to solidify its tough anti-North Korea narrative. Maybe Pence did not want to aggravate North Korea by standing up to Kim Yo-jong in-person. But for him to do nothing of note like that at the Olympics does somewhat contradict and weaken the administration’s tough stance. The United States has not lost any geopolitical ground due to Pence’s inaction, but it does feel like a missed occasion to affirm its position.
The United States has been using sanctions to apply pressure on North Korea for years but has not made much headway. No sanctions can have the kind of impact Pence was in a personal position to make. He had a unique opportunity to confront North Korea directly, but it unfortunately fell flat.
North Korea: Improving Image and Dividing Opponents
Considering its totalitarian and anomalous government, North Korea’s success at the Winter Olympics is the most difficult to gauge. The North Korean state media purportedly broadcast little to no coverage of the actual Olympic games to the North Korean public, which indicates that Kim Jong-un did not plan to use the Olympics to further his domestic power. Instead, North Korea approached the Olympics as an opportunity to improve its always difficult geopolitical position, just as South Korea and the United States moved to execute their own agendas.
North Korea’s overarching objective was probably to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. An ideological and diplomatic divergence between the United States and South Korea on approaching the North has been clear ever since Moon and Trump began collaborating. The contrast between Moon’s willingness to talk with members of the North’s delegation and Pence ignoring Kim Yo-jong entirely is evidence of that split. Pence’s refusal to be vocal and up-front with Kim Yo-jong about America’s intolerance for North Korea is actually more damaging than not speaking to her at all—even if his words had not aligned with Moon’s goodwill—because it frankly exposed the United States’ and South Korea’s contrasting approaches to dealing with the North.
Giving North Korea open confirmation of Moon’s and Trump’s differences was not an ideal outcome of the Olympics. That being said, North Korea was already aware of this general rift between the Trump administration and Moon’s government, and Kim Jong-un’s regime will have attempted to exploit it in order to weaken opposition to his agenda. North Korea’s presence at the games and their accompanying charm offensive were likely directed at two goals, neither of which had anything to do with sports: distracting from US criticism to improve North Korea’s image on the one hand and intimating future collaboration to South Korea’s government on the other.
The North Korean delegation was crafted more for improving North Korea’s image than for competing in the games at a high level. The North Korean athletes did not perform very well, but their performances were not as important as the fact that they were present. Most of Kim Yo-jong’s delegation consisted of musicians, a taekwondo team, a huge cheerleading squad, and a motley group of journalists. The cheerleader squad was one of the most impactful parts of the North Korean charm offensive, as they proved to be an immediate attention-grabber for South Koreans and the international media. North Korean defectors have claimed that these cheerleaders are forced into sexual slavery to the North Korean Central Politburo (the parallel to Japan’s World War II-era Korean comfort women is palpable).
Many in the mainstream media have been criticized for normalizing the Kim regime through uncritical coverage of the delegation, and for good reason. That normalization has undoubtedly contributed to North Korea’s propaganda efforts at the Winter Olympics. Kim Yo-jong stole media headlines just by sitting near Pence, and she is already being compared to Ivanka Trump. The Trump administration may be detestable in numerous ways, but equating Kim Yo-jong, who, as Pence stated at CPAC, is a leading figure in a murderous regime, with Ivanka Trump, is a truly outlandish and deplorable thing to do. If anything, such comparisons illustrate that North Korea’s anti-US public relations mission was more successful than it should have been.
That being said, North Korea has by no means actually improved its international image in the long haul at the Winter Olympics. Fleeting attention grabs predicated on the exoticism of North Korea will not have staying power with the international media or the general public. North Korea’s well-deserved reputation for crimes against humanity, all-around oppressiveness, and reckless nuclear ambition cannot be overcome in two weeks by a few forgettable athletic performances, a band of sex-slave cheerleaders, and an enchanting feminine representative. Kim Jong-un is more likely to have success in sowing discord between his two greatest enemies.
Other than disarming strong opposition to North Korea’s image, Kim Jong-un is intent on trying to take advantage of South Korea’s willingness to communicate and put Trump and Moon at odds with one another. Kim Jong-un seems to believe that engaging Moon in more direct talks will allow him to separate Moon from Trump. But he is probably wrong. Although Trump has continuously blasted Kim Jong-un with heated and childish comments and tweets, his administration has been hard at work implementing an uncompromising but still diplomatic position against the North. The Trump administration will support Moon’s progressive approach to dealing with North Korea even while it pursues its own maximal pressure policy, and South Korea relies too heavily on its alliance with the United States to alienate the Americans anyway.
Kim Yo-jong’s appearance at the Winter Olympics for propaganda purposes will not amount to much. Kim Jong-un would be better served by capitalizing on South Korea’s openness and provoking US-South Korea tensions, difficult as that may be.
So, who won the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics?
Norway topped the medal table at the Winter Olympics. But in the realm of Korean Peninsula and Asia-Pacific geopolitics, it is more difficult to say whether it was the United States, North, or South Korea that best converted the games into political opportunity.
The United States emerged from the Olympics in mostly the same position as it entered. The media frenzy over Kim Yo-jong and Pence will dissipate quickly and make no real impression on North Korea’s image. Still, the United States might have left some diplomatic opportunities on the table in Pyeongchang. North Korea got the international exposure it wanted but failed to meaningfully change its image (which was probably a losing cause anyway). However, Kim Yo-jong’s reception by Moon indicated that the Winter Olympics did help thaw out tensions between the two Koreas.
Yet the biggest geopolitical winner of the three countries was South Korea. Not only did South Korea serve as an exemplary host of the Winter Olympics; Moon’s government was able to use the sporting tradition as a geopolitical tool to further its inter-Korean dialogue objectives. Moon has to take considerable caution if he pursues dialogue by accepting Kim Jong-un’s invitation, as Trump may react negatively and North Korea will certainly still try to exploit his cordiality. Despite the potential pitfalls, South Korea has positioned itself best to accomplish its current geopolitical aim in the Korean Peninsula by pursuing further inter-Korean dialogue.
Inter-Korean dialogue is South Korea’s main goal right now, whereas North Korea’s main goal seems to be regime survival. North Korea cannot be certain that more dialogue will guarantee better odds of survivability, but Kim Jong-un is willing to entertain that possibility. It is also important to note that, while South Korea’s survival is perpetually at risk as well, Moon’s government wants to mend the South’s social and cultural rifts with the North. North Korea’s regime is not really interested in those goals: their desires are firmly grounded in the reality of their geopolitical situation, which helps account for the diverging mindsets exhibited by the two Koreas.
North Korea’s decision to cancel their meeting with Pence but inform Moon in an inter-Korean meeting that they would still be open to talks with the United States further demonstrates just how much sway South Korea now holds in the Korean Peninsula’s geopolitical future. Indeed, it seems like my prediction that South Korea would have a crucial geopolitical role under Moon’s leadership is being proven correct. Moon is planning to send a “special envoy” to North Korea, presumably as both a gesture of good intentions and a means of probing some concrete provisions for future stability on the Peninsula.
Bronze, silver, and gold medals are incredible victors’ spoils, but South Korea won the biggest prize of them all: this particular chapter of Korean Peninsula’s geopolitical tussle. The ball is, so to speak, in South Korea’s court.
The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.