North Korea wins gold in propaganda
The Pyeongchang Winter Games have already become a propaganda win for North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un. And it has become a much needed PR victory for the IOC after all the trouble with Russian doping. But everything is not as it should be.
This weekend, the IOC made an agreement with North and South Korea regarding the North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Games, starting on 9 February.
Last week, North and South Korea agreed on the framework for North Korean participation and this weekend, all formalities regarding the North Korean participation were clarified. They agreed that North Korea will be represented in the 2018 Winter Games with 22 athletes covering five disciplines: ice hockey, figure skating, short track speed skating, cross country skiing and alpine skiing. This is historic. Last time South Korea arranged Olympic Games, in Seoul 1988, North Korea boycotted the Games and shot down a Korean airliner with 115 passengers to cause trouble for their neighbours.
The 22 athletes are followed by 24 officials and 21 representatives from the North Korean media. Usually, media representatives from totalitarian countries have close connections to the national secret service, so the amount of media representatives matching the amount of athletes does not signal a new policy on freedom of expression, I am afraid.
According to the agreement, athletes from North and South Korea will march together as Korea at the opening ceremony and under the unification flag held by four athletes, one male and female from each country. In case of victory in one of the five disciplines, Arirang, a more than 2000-year-old Korean folk song, which is considered the unofficial national anthem of Korea, will be played at the ceremony.
Participating in the negotiations were the North Korean IOC member Chang Ung and the South Korean IOC member Ryu Seing-min (former Olympic champion in table tennis), the president of the International Ski Federation (FIS) Gian-Franco Kasper and the Swedish IOC member Gunilla Lindberg, who heads the Pyeongchang 2018 Coordination Commission. The IOC has used the outcome of the negotiations as a symbol of the reconciliatory power of the Olympics.
North Korean athletes
In the sports field, the female hockey team has been surrounded by the most controversy. The team has been named COR and it was decided that the team will consist of 12 players from North Korea and 23 from South Korea. Only 22 players can participate in each match and at least three of them must be from North Korea.
Some have criticized the IOC for this measure arguing that it is in breach of the IOC gender equality policy because the men's ice hockey team is not covered by the same agreement. Further, Canadian-American national coach Sarah Murray said" is a little bit dangerous just for team chemistry because the girls (the South Korean, ed.) have been together for so long”. Six out of ten South Koreans oppose the fact that the two Korean countries will compete on the same team, and when the South Korean prime minister claimed that the women’s hockey team was a great place to experiment because the team, ranked 22nd in the world, stands no chances of winning anyways, it triggered national protests.
There has not been as much debate about the other North Korean athletes. Of the North Korean athletes participating, Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik, who took bronze in the Asian Winter Games last year, are the only North Koreans who have qualified for the Olympics. However, they failed to register within the deadline of 31 October last year, but will receive a quota place from the IOC in order to be able to compete. The rest of the North Korean participants will also receive IOC quota places.
Jong Kwang-bom and Choe Un-song will be placed on the men's 500 and 1500 short track speed skating. Han Chun-gyong, Pak Il-chol and Kim Ryon-hyang will participate in cross-country skiing. Choe Myong-Gwang and Kang Song-il will be competing in the men's slalom and grand slalom. Kim Ryon hyang can participate in the women's slalom and grand slalom. Some speculate that there will also be a unified bobsleigh team.
The IOC has not said anything about what doping regime the North Korean athletes have been under the past year and whether the National Anti-Doping Agency in North Korea are compliant with the WADA Code. It may not be that important to the IOC in this context?
Why does North Korea want to participate?
Before New Year there were lengthy speculations on whether North Korea would participate in Pyeongchang or not, but after Kim Jong-un’s New Year's speech in which he told the world that it was good for South Korea to host the Winter Olympics and that North Korea considered participating, things started moving.
Supporters of the Olympic Movement and the Olympic Spirit consider the current development as a good example of sport raising above politics and contributing to the creation of a better world. I will argue that it is not that simple, even though North Korean participation in the South Korean Olympics is a historic event. What if the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang has become hostage in a major political conflict?
What we see today is nothing else than "hard politics" and for North Korea, the Pyeongchang Winter Games is a golden opportunity to be an important actor on the international scene as never seen before. Further, it is an opportunity for the totalitarian regime to add new elements to its suppressive nation building.
Moreover, North Korea is utilizing the Pyeongchang Winter Games as a means of diverting attention away from the nuclear testing they have been criticized and sanctioned for over the past few years. The so-called North Korean Olympic Diplomacy is a charm offensive to the outside world.
But this is also an opportunity for the North Korean regime to split a wedge in the relationship between the United States and South Korea, two countries with close economic and military ties. South Korea has already made the United States put on hold the annual joint military exercise Foal Eagle/Key Resolve that usually takes place in February, and the more photos of North and South Korean politicians shaking hands, the stronger the impression of a United States on the sidelines in matters concerning North Korea. For how long will Donald Trump accept this? What if the US President gets the idea that North Korea has used the Olympic truce period to further develop its nuclear weapon program?
More support for a repressive regime
North Korea is perhaps the world's most oppressive regime, and outplays Nazi Germany in propaganda and oppression. And until we learn otherwise, there is reason to believe that the charm offensive we see from North Korean authorities is used in the homeland to showcase North Korean greatness and as a means of further suppressing its own people.
When North Korea sends over its most popular music group and has South Korean athletes come to Kim Jong-Un’s North Korean skiing resorts as part of the Olympic preparations, North Korean TV is sure to get perfect footage portraying Kim Jong-Un controlling the West and the international agenda. The outcome of this is uncertain, but in the end, what we experience may not be for the greater good.
For the IOC, success is often measured in how many government officials turn up at the opening ceremony. It is reported that US Vice President Mike Pence will be present. The ultimate stunt pulled by North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un, to test the patience of Western leaders, will be to announce his presence at the opening ceremony. Then all talk of reconciliation in the framework of the Pyeongchang Winter Games will be tested.
North Korea in the Olympics may be good PR for the IOC and an assurance that the Pyeongchang Winter Games will not be at risk of attacks from North Korea. But this is also an tremendous propaganda victory for the North Korean regime no matter if they show up or not.
This comment piece first appeared in Norwegian on eurosport.no, and is reprinted on playthegame.org with kind permission from the author.