The Yomiuri ShimbunThe Pyeongchang Winter Olympics opens amid an escalation in North Korea’s threats. This time, the Games will certainly differ from those held previously, deeply reflecting the regional political situation.
There are about 2,900 participating athletes from 92 countries and territories. This is the third time for the Winter Olympics to be hosted in Asia, following those held in Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998. The Pyeongchang Games is the second Olympics hosted in South Korea, following the 1988 Seoul Summer Games.
The Olympic flame will continue to be lit in East Asia, at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
Military parade a threat
South Korean President Moon Jae In requested the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games as a diplomatic card for promoting a conciliatory policy toward North Korea. Kim Jong Un, the chairman of the Workers Party of Korea, complied, instantly compounding the political tone of the Olympics.
Sanctions have been imposed by the international community on North Korea, which has been pushing ahead with its nuclear and missile development programs. North Korea apparently aims to fill the Games with a conciliatory atmosphere between the Koreas and drive a wedge between Tokyo, Washington and Seoul in an attempt to open a crack in the network of sanctions.
Sports events should keep a distance from politics. This fundamental principle has been distorted.
It cannot be overlooked that North Korea defiantly held a military parade on the eve of the Pyeongchang Games and showed off its military arsenal, even including intercontinental ballistic missiles. This apparently illustrates Pyongyang’s intention to continue threatening the Unites States and other countries.
A sense of discomfort about Moon’s enthusiasm for promoting conciliation with North Korea against such a backdrop is unavoidable, with the president saying Seoul will set the “stream” of peace nurtured in Pyeongchang in place.
North Korean athletes will march together with their South Korean counterparts during the opening ceremony, carrying a unified Korean flag. In the women’s ice hockey event, a North-South joint team will compete for the first time in Olympic history.
Too many exceptions
North Korea also has sent a cheer squad and an art troupe to South Korea. South Korea must not be blinded by this “charm offensive.”
The South Korean side has repeatedly compromised during intergovernmental talks with North Korea. Especially problematic was Seoul allowing, as an exceptional measure, the Mangyongbong-92 ferry that carried the art troupe to dock at a South Korean port. Normally, this would infringe on sanctions South Korea has imposed independently on North Korea.
When skiers from both nations had joint training in North Korea, the South Korean athletes flew there on a chartered plane. South Korea asked the U.S. government to exempt the flight from U.S. sanctions.
Such concessions could be endlessly expanded. That would send the wrong signal to North Korea. It is no wonder that Moon’s attitude leaning toward holding talks with North Korea has drawn noticeable criticism within South Korea and overseas.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence emphasized that the United States and Japan would not allow North Korea’s propaganda to hijack the message of the Olympics. He was quite right to say so.
Pence, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other leaders will attend the opening ceremony, where Olympic diplomacy will move up a gear. The leaders should use this opportunity to maintain pressure on North Korea and seek a path toward a peaceful resolution of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile development issues.
North Korea will send a delegation headed by Kim Yong Nam, president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and that nation’s second-highest official. Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, also will accompany the delegation.
When Moon holds talks with the North Korean side, he must strongly demand Pyongyang abandon its nuclear and missile development.
It is not only the South Korean government that has taken “exceptional measures” when dealing with North Korea. The approach of the International Olympic Committee also has raised eyebrows.
The IOC has approved the participation of 22 North Korean athletes at the Games. They will compete in 10 events in three sports — women’s ice hockey, skating and skiing. Among them, the figure skating pair gained a spot at Pyeongchang by qualifying on merit, but they failed to confirm their participation before the registration deadline.
IOC President Thomas Bach said the Games are “hopefully opening the door for a brighter future on the Korean Peninsula.” He emphasized the significance of allowing the participation of the 22 North Korean athletes as a special case.
Of course, the doors of the Olympics are wide open, and North Korean athletes should not be excluded from taking part. However, their participation should be premised on following the proper process, such as winning through qualification rounds.
The IOC cannot escape criticism that giving special treatment to North Korean athletes made light of the fairness that forms the foundation of sporting events. Questions must be raised about the consistency between this and the Olympic Charter, which states that political propaganda must be excluded from the Games.
Japanese success expected
The IOC banned Russia, which was found to have conducted systemic doping violations, from competing as a nation at Pyeongchang. However, it left open a path that allowed Russian athletes to compete as individuals provided they met certain conditions.
As a result, the IOC has allowed 169 Russian athletes to participate. The damage inflicted on Russia has been limited. This indicates the IOC wanted to avoid a full-on fight against Russia, which is a sporting powerhouse.
The 124 Japanese athletes aim to win at least nine medals, including multiple golds. It is time for the athletes to focus on their events and give it everything they have got.