International Politics and the Olympics
by Breanna Beers
The Olympics may be over, but the political games are just beginning. The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics were fraught with international maneuvering, from the conspicuous absence of the Russian colors to the high-profile participation of North Korean athletes alongside their South Korean hosts.
The image of athletes from both North and South Korea marching as a unified team under a single flag has quickly become a famous one, leading many to wonder if peace talks may be soon to follow. Despite international sanctions, North Korea has continued the development and testing of short- and long-range ballistic missiles as well as nuclear weapons, with more tests in 2017 than any previous year.
International studies professor Dr. Glen Duerr pointed out that this makes their apparently sudden interest in diplomacy during the Olympics all the more intriguing.
“With these recent nuclear tests and improvements in ballistic missiles, it’s come at a time when North Korea is facing pressure from the outside,” Duerr said. “But I think there’s also an internal pressure. A lot of jump drives are getting into North Korea. They’re showing Gangnam Style; they’re showing Korean soaps; they’re inadvertently showing the wealth of South Korea. So, North Korea picked up the phone between the two Koreas. It is an opportunity to, at least during the Olympics, put on a different face for North Korea.”
In hosting the Olympics, South Korea was able to cement its place in the world, moving past the traumatic aftermath of the Korean War to display its current power as a free people with the 11th largest economy in the world. By standing with its rival in South Korea’s moment of triumph, North Korea was able to claim a significant public relations victory among the international community — especially, according to Duerr, the American news media.
“The North Korean cheerleaders, Kim Jong Un’s sister — these have been a bit of a charm offensive for North Korea,” said Duerr. “It presents a level of normalcy to see her in a box with [South Korean President] Moon Jae-in and the vice president [Pence].”
History and law professor Dr. Marc Clauson commented on how this “charm offensive” took an especially prominent place in the American coverage of the Olympic Games.
“She’s become sort of a star in the news media, just by being there,” Clauson said. “If [Kim Jong-un] had been there, it wouldn’t have been so nice. But she’s his sister, and she seems to be peaceful, and she’s talking peacefully — it gives the news media what they want. It’s a good PR move.”
However, Clauson was skeptical about whether the apparent truce will continue.
“I think it’s a fake peace,” Clauson said. “It’s always been a fake peace. They try to appease as much as they can and make it look good, make it look peaceful, but it’s just papering over what’s really there. And I think that tension is never going to go away until North Korea’s regime changes.”
Similarly, Duerr said that he expects little to change in North Korea without the removal of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. However, he said, better for them to engage in diplomatic talks than to withdraw again into uneasy silence.
“While I think it’s more posturing, there’s the potential for peace,” said Duerr. “But North Korea is so insulated, the regime is so tightly wound, that it’s going to be difficult to see a shift anytime soon. I have a fear that my children’s generation will look at us one day and say ‘What were you doing, in the midst of a 21st century holocaust?’”
Shortly after the closing of the Olympic Games, South Korean president, Moon Jae-in announced that a delegation of South Korean envoys will soon be traveling to North Korea to discuss future relations between the two countries. In March, President Trump also accepted an invitation from North Korea to meet for negotiations regarding North Korea’s nuclear program. Yet, as Duerr pointed out, similar delegations have gone before to return with few actual gains.
“North Korea has to do more, and I think a lot more, for me to be convinced,” Duerr said. “But it’s a nice step for Moon Jae-in to come in. And we’re still dealing with human beings, human beings that may go for a deal, that may look for something, and so I think that’s at least possible.”
While the Olympics gave North Korea the chance to gain favor in the eyes of the international community, Russia received a public shaming from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Due to the repeated use of performance-enhancing drugs by Russian athletes during several previous Olympics, no official Russian team was permitted to compete in Pyeongchang. While Russian athletes were still allowed to participate under the nondescript red-and-white flag declaring them ‘Olympic Athletes from Russia,’ the Russian flag was not flown, Russian colors could not be worn, the Russian anthem was not played, and the medals won did not go toward Russia’s official medal count.
Duerr praised the IOC for their compromise in punishing the country while preserving the individual athletes.
“I think the IOC did a good job of threading a pretty fine needle, to allow athletes that are clean to participate, to do well, because Russia brings a lot on the world stage,” Duerr said. “There’s some tremendous athletes to come from Russia, so I’m glad they’re at the Olympics, but I’m also glad there’s this balance of castigating the country and a systematic program of doping. Certainly when [Russians] see the Olympic flag in its place, it’s a stain on the international arena, especially coming after a successful Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.”
However, as Russia looks forward to hosting the World Cup this summer as well as the Euro Cup in 2020, Clauson expressed doubts about whether the IOC’s actions were a sufficient deterrent to the continued use of performance-enhancing drugs.
“These are the kinds of people who are driven in life to succeed in their sport. And so nothing is going to deter them unless they have some kind of ethical conscience,” Clauson said. “The Russians themselves still consider themselves to be Russian, and competing for Russia. And so back home I’m sure the PR is, ‘Hey, our Russian athletes, look what they did today. They’re our Russian athletes.’”
According to Duerr, the Olympics have irreversibly tied politics to sport, for better or for worse.
“Political elements have always played a factor in the Olympic Games. It’s a double-edged sword,” Duerr said. “You bring countries to the table, they compete and thrive, but they’re competing against one another. But at the same time, they’re at a table and not fighting, and any time the world is in that stage it’s useful.”
Breanna Beers is a freshman Molecular Biology and Journalism double major and an off-campus news writer for Cedars. She loves exercising curiosity, hiking new trails, and quoting The Princess Bride whether it’s relevant or not.