About the Author
View more articles by Kevin Search
Kevin Search is an NK News contributor based in Seoul, South Korea. He previously worked for the North Korean Review Journal.
When North Korean Olympic officials stated back in March that the country hopes to send “as many athletes as possible” to the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea next year, it became abundantly clear that the DPRK has a strong desire to both compete in, and make its mark on, Pyeongchang 2018.
With the Games being held in the South, just 50 miles from its own border, it should come as no surprise that the motivation for North Korea to make its presence felt is greater than usual.
And based on recent comments by Pyeongchang 2018 chief Lee Hee-beom, it seems that politically speaking, North Korea will have nothing stopping it from making its presence known.
Lee stated on May 19th at the South Korean embassy in London that: “All nations are welcome, including North Korea and Russia. We want it to be the peace games.”
But while some may welcome that view, others may feel that given North Korea’s exceptionally provocative recent behavior, this is not the time to be so unconditionally generous.
Could it even be high time to go in the completely opposite direction and ban, or threaten to ban, North Korea from competing at Pyeongchang 2018?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned South Africa from the Olympics from 1964 to 1988 over its racially discriminatory policy of apartheid. And while the effectiveness of the ban on ending the apartheid policy in the country remains debatable, the fact is that Olympic bans have been used in the past as a coercive political instrument: a precedent for banning North Korea, arguably, does exist.
Should the possibility not then, at a very minimum, be on the table, or a part of the political conversation?
Compared to economic and financial sanctions, banning North Korea from the Olympics might seem like a fairly minor attempt at bringing about change in the country’s behavior. But North Korea no doubt wants to be at the Olympics, especially these Olympics, held as they are on the Korean peninsula. The country has made repeated requests to co-host the Games with the South, in the hope that it, too, could be in the international spotlight.
An Olympic ban, if implemented, would be one form of sanction that the North could not evade. There would be no way for North Korea to skirt or mitigate the effectiveness of such an action.
To boot, with the Olympics being one of Pyongyang’s only means of showcasing itself to the world, taking this option away (or at the very least threatening to) could be a potentially significant blow – one that the regime might take more seriously than expected.
But would it work? To help answer this and other related questions, NK News gathered opinion from a group of specialists in the field of international sports, North Korean studies, and diplomacy.
The following experts responded in time for our deadline:
1. What would a ban from Pyeongchang 2018 mean to North Korea, and how would the country likely react to such a development?
Former diplomat to Pyongyang: North Korea hates being excluded from big sporting events at the best of times. But these are not the best of times – the regime is nervous about the international situation and at what President Trump might do.
I suspect therefore that the regime would react sharply and angrily, and see this exclusion as yet further proof of the international plot against them.
It is therefore unlikely that banning North Korea from participating in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will be taken as a serious punishment. They may just ignore the event on the other side of the Korean border.
This would be very different if it was a much more high-profile international sports competition with popular and widespread appeal in North Korea, such as the Soccer World Cup or the Summer Olympics.
Dr. Steven Capener: Being banned from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics would be a big deal to North Korea. First of all, like South Korea but much more so, North Korea still practices the old Soviet model of sport wherein success in international competition, with the Olympics being the pinnacle, serves as an affirmation of the success and even superiority of their entire system.
Therefore, being denied this venue would have a powerful effect on their ability to portray one of the few positives that can be presented. Also, the fact that this is a “Korean” Olympics would add to the insult.
Michael Spavor: Banning North Korea from participating in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics would be a huge disappointment to the hardworking North Korean athletes and their many fans inside the country. I am sure that the government and their people would react negatively and it would further sour relations on the peninsula.
2. If implemented, what might banning North Korea from participating in Pyeongchang 2018 accomplish?
Dr. Udo Merkel: If North Korea was indeed banned from attending the 2018 Winter Olympics, it would obviously be a missed (public relations) opportunity to offer the world an alternative discourse about the country, which is currently dominated by its provocative testing of missiles.
But, again, due to North Korea’s minimal interest and prowess in winter sports, it is a blow the country could live with.
Michael Spavor: Personally, I can’t see any benefits from banning North Korea from the Olympics. Instead of thinking of disciplinary measures, sanctions, and bans, the international community should be encouraging more interaction and inclusion when holding international cultural, educational, developmental and sporting activities, especially the Olympics.
We can’t exaggerate the impacts of socio-cultural exchanges on improving the political situation. But it is my understanding that during times of tension, promoting contacts, even through sporting events, can actually contribute to reducing tensions, and thus secure peace.
And for the two Koreas, if you don’t create opportunities for interactions between members of the two societies, how then are you going to encourage understanding and peaceful coexistence?
Dr. Steven Capener: In my opinion, very little. The North would lose one Olympic cycle (a winter one as well. They don’t care much about the Winter Olympics and are not particularly well represented in any winter sports).
Keep in mind, the North is not interested in participating in the Olympics, they are concerned about being seen winning Olympic medals. I would be surprised if competitions are shown live or if there is any coverage of athletes who lose.
Excluding North Korea from Pyeongchang would annoy the regime, but would probably not cause it to change its behavior.
3. If implemented, what could be the drawbacks of such a ban?
Michael Spavor: Not allowing North Korea to participate at the Olympics would indicate an explicit lack of willingness on the part of South Korea to promote contacts with North Korea. I think it would also show an unprecedented bias on the part of the Olympic committee. It would be a missed opportunity to foster mutual understanding.
A ban of North Korean athletes would also thwart the current efforts by the South Korean government to make Pyeongchang a so-called “Peace Olympics,” which could undeniably be a strong and symbolic first step towards reconciliation and normalization in moving forward under South Korea’s new leadership. It might also symbolize a failure with the new ROK regime and any initial attempts at any engagement or President Moon’s policies.
The IOC has very publicly stated that it is apolitical (when clearly it isn’t). This decision would have to be made by the IOC, whereas boycotts were made by the relevant governments U.S. et. al, and Soviet et. al.
Former diplomat to Pyongyang: It would set difficult precedents – Olympic teams are not supposed to be banned for political reasons. It would mean that, for example, an Arab host nation for the Olympics would have a precedent to quote for excluding Israel.
Dr. Udo Merkel: Banning the country from participating in the 2018 Pyeongchang Games will further marginalize the DPRK and certainly lead to a further deterioration of the relationship between the two Koreas.
The 2018 Winter Olympics could potentially be an opportunity for closer cooperation, easing the tensions between the two Koreas and promoting peace and reconciliation on the divided peninsula.
The last years have clearly shown that political and economic pressure, sanctions and containment are not effective.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons