The geopolitical implications for the Winter Olympics will be significant for 2018, and not just because of Nigeria’s trailblazing bobsled team. On January 17, North and South Korea announced that not only would they would march together under one flag at in Pyeongchang, but also, for the first time, the two countries would field a joint women’s ice-hockey team. On February 7, North Korea took one step further, announcing that Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong (often called his “Ivanka”), would attend the Opening Ceremonies.
After months of worry that North Korea would choose to disrupt the Games through violence or protest, politicians have puzzled over what would make the country’s unpredictable dictator change his mind. In the eyes of many, such camaraderie signals that North Korea may be willing to negotiate and compromise in its relationships going forward. However, the move may actually be a part of a larger chess game, in which North Korea seeks to diminish U.S. influence in the region under the guise of ping-pong diplomacy.
Sports and diplomacy have, historically, gone hand-in-hand. “The ping-pong diplomacy” of the early 1970s occurred when U.S. and Chinese table tennis players who traveled and competed against one another at the highest level. The sport provided a vehicle for dialogue and geniality, allowing for a marked thaw in Sino-American relations that paved the way for President Nixon’s visit to Beijing.
North Korea may be using the Olympics for a different purpose than diplomacy—it may be to further their agenda against the United States. The same day that the country announced Kim Yo-jong’s visit to South Korea, North Korea’s central news agency broadcast that the Korean peninsula’s nuclear program was “no longer controversial,” and directed the United States to focus on peace in the region instead. While the United States had previously relied on China and Russia to assist in denuclearization, such cooperation appears to be in shambles. As the United States continues to lose global friends and influence under the presidency of Donald Trump, the Olympics have provided an opportunity for North Korea to further isolate America and its depleted diplomatic core.
On January 9, North Korea re-emphasized that any missiles would target the U.S. alone, not South Korea, nor Russia or China. This means that in Pyeongchang, Americans have the most to lose. With the International Olympic Committee’s historic move to ban Russia’s Olympic team from the Games, Russian leadership will be noticeably absent. Similarly, a détente between North and South Korea would certainly serve Chinese interests, allowing the nation to increase their own role in shaping the geopolitical situation in Asia, while simultaneously diminishing U.S. influence in the region. In fact, one former U.S. ambassador has speculated that North Korea’s abrupt change in Olympic posture may have been at the direction of the Chinese President Xi Jinping himself, seeking to ensure long-term stability in the region as it transitions into the next global hegemon.
The Olympics have always been political. In acting as a barometer for the global status quo, the games have always been inherently politically-charged, contentious, and divisive. Jesse Owens’ iconic performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics raised deep questions for both Nazi Germany and United States before the Civil Rights Era. The Munich Massacre of 1972, in which the Israeli Olympic team members were taken hostage and eventually killed in West Germany, still makes headlines, as scholars uncover whether the disaster was foreseeable or permitted. In the 1980’s, the Olympics saw the peak of the Cold War play out as the United States and the Soviet Union boycotted the Games on each other’s soil.
The Trump administration may well be missing the point of North Korea’s olympic posturing. In response to its news, Vice President Mike Pence stated that the charade would not “hijack” the Olympics. Instead, he argued that the U.S. should and will “continue to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs once and for all.”
If the objective of the North Korean government was to begin to drive a wedge between the United States and those in favor of a united Korean peninsula, they are off to a strong start—and U.S. leadership is assisting them in the process. Rather than condemning North Korea’s actions with no regard for their broader strategic purpose, the U.S. should engage in ping-pong diplomacy of its own. The U.S. must continue to be a unifying force in the world, which it cannot be if it stands entirely alone. America must look past this Olympic moment, and recognize that North Korea may be in the process of playing a much larger chess game, and in no hurry, so long as checkmate is in sight.