Friday, February 9, 2018 at 8:47 PM

PyeongChang Olympics: Diplomatic Brinkmanship Upstages Opening Ceremony

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

The United States did more than any county to establish norms in every aspect of international relations. This is why it seems so surreal to watch it flout them in ways one would expect only of a rogue nation.

US Vice President Mike Pence continued that flouting today as he executed his boorish mission to avoid any interaction with any North Korean.

Although misguided, it would have been understandable if he were just playing bad cop to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s good cop. But all the president’s men are clearly doing diplomacy by the seat of their pants.

Trump himself betrayed this fact months ago when he famously chastised Tillerson for offering to meet with the North Koreans – even if, as he entreated, it’s only to talk about the weather.

In any event, universal norms of civility should have compelled Pence to attend the private reception his host, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, held for 12 prominent dignitaries. Those norms should have compelled him further to engage in polite conversation with other guests, including Kim Yo-jong, sister of the North Korean president.

That did not happen. Pence made a brief appearance and left early [as in well before the first course].

(Yahoo! Sports, February 9, 2018)

He did the same hours later at the Opening Ceremony. But this time, the entire world saw Pence running away with his nose in the air and his tail between his legs.

He knew he had to run if he wanted to avoid any contact with Yo-jong – who was sitting just over his right shoulder. Any any self-respecting man in his position would have done the manly, gentlemanly, and statesmanly thing, namely, approach her, shake hands, and exchange pleasantries. And Pence should have done this despite North Korea’s obvious intent to hijack these Games with goodwill stunts; but better stunts than bombs.

This might help put his behavior into context:

Imagine hosting a dinner party to celebrate a big promotion at which you invite, among few others, your boss, your parents, and your estranged sister – with whom you’re trying to rekindle ties. How would you feel if your boss (a) behaved the way Pence did just because he did not like your sister – for whatever reason, and (b) then tried to get you to stop talking to your sister just to vindicate his behavior?

Now times the awkwardness, rudeness, and potential consequences of your situation by 2.5 billion, and that’s basically what happened here.

Incidentally, I imagine the topic of conversation for the rest of your dinner party would involve each guest venting shock and dismay (perhaps even disgust) at your boss’s crass behavior. What’s more, such a slight might cause you to be even more solicitous of your sister’s kinship.

I imagine the president of South Korea presided over a more diplomatic version of the same after Pence left. What’s more, this slight might cause the South to be even more solicitous of détente with the North, defying imperial pre-conditions the United States set.

In “PyeongChang: Olympics and Politics Playing Out like Marriage and Divorce,” February 7, 2018, I expressed hope that Trump had not so debased Pence’s Midwestern sense and sensibility that he would behave like a typical ugly American; well, so much for that. No doubt Trump and Pence think such boorishness makes them look strong. The irony, of course, is that it makes them look weak.

The arrogant folly is that they think they can willfully annoy, insult, and upstage the South Korean president and then get him to thank them for doing so.

Unfortunately, they seem quite happy to have the United States play this emperor-wears-no-clothes role on the world stage. Sure enough, Pence made it a complete laughingstock today – notwithstanding his permanent countenance of constipated sincerity.

Apropos of laughingstock, the only thing more perverse than his behavior was the media covering Kim’s little sister Yo-jong as if she were, well, Kim’s little sister Kylie.

South Korea, North Korea, and the United States were clearly playing a propaganda game. And the way Jong-un’s little sister performed at the reception and Opening Ceremony was enough for North Korea to win the gold medal. But when you factor in his goodwill performers and cheerleaders, looking like airline stewardesses from the 1950s, it was a lock.

On a completely different note, there was this far less serious but equally viral controversy:

Speedskater Shani Davis didn’t attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics after losing a coin flip to carry the U.S. flag and lead American athletes into the stadium.

(Associated Press, February 9, 2018)

Of course, anyone who knows anything about Speedskating knows that Davis is a five-time Olympian. And, more to the point, that he’s a black man with a boulder-size chip on his shoulder.

I see no point in commenting on slights, real and perceived, that have caused him to train separately from his Olympic teammates since the 2006 Turin Olympics. Except, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I’m on record supporting some of his claims of unfair treatment. But this explains a lot:

They try never to say the wrong thing around him and hope to avoid the wrath of Cherie Davis, who acts as her son’s manager and gatekeeper and habitually fires off e-mail messages — ‘blasts,’ as I heard them called — to media members, team officials, agents representing other athletes and anyone else she believes has wronged him.

Among the dozens of pictures on U.S. Speedskating’s official Web site, you won’t find one of Davis, an oddity that would be akin to the Yankees’ airbrushing Derek Jeter out of all their promotional material.

(New York Times, February 4, 2010)

Given that, who can blame American corporations for never lining up to sign him to Tiger-like endorsement deals.

It’s bad enough in this case that Davis looks like a sore loser for boycotting the Opening Ceremony after losing that coin toss. And nobody with any common-sense cares why he did so. But he surely lost what little esprit de corps he had left with his teammates when he then cried racism:

I am an American and when I won the 1000m in 2010 I became the first American to 2-peat in that event. @TeamUSA dishonorably tossed a coin to decide its 2018 flag bearer. No problem. I can wait until 2022. #BlackHistoryMonth2018

— Shani Davis (@ShaniDavis) February 8, 2018

Good luck, Shani … and then good riddance!

Meanwhile, the dynamics afoot in the VIP box completely upstaged all performances on the field. Which I suppose is just as well. Because, truth be told, there was nothing spectacular about this Opening Ceremony.

The technological wizardry, choreographed precision, and sheer grandeur of everything on display during last night’s Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Olympics kept me so mesmerized – in such shock and awe – that I even sat through the commercials.

In fact, I found myself continually exclaiming – ‘How did they do that?!’ Specifically, I marveled at the serene manner in which the Chinese fused twenty-first century technology with ancient graphics, costumes and choreography to remind us that they were the world’s only superpower for centuries before the Americans even thought about fighting the British to give birth to the United States of America.

(“Opening Ceremony of Beijing Olympics: Unprecedented, Spectacular, Awe Inspiring,” The iPINIONS Journal, August 9, 2008)

I’m afraid Beijing ruined it for every other host city. Because I’m realizing with each successive Opening Ceremony that, once you have seen Beijing, you’ll always miss that zing.

That said, I could not help thinking that South Koreans were showing off their technological advancements primarily to trigger or tap into desires for reunification among their North Korean brothers and sisters – most of whom are living primitive lives of quiet desperation. If there were any doubt about the South Koreans’ intent, that benedictory rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine” erased it.

On the other hand, their show could trigger a jealous Kim Jong-un to bomb them back into the stone age just to squash those desires.

With that unsportsmanlike thought in mind, I say, let the Games begin!

NOTE: As usual, this will be a politics free zone over the next two weeks, while I comment on the Olympics. That is, unless something truly noteworthy develops; you know, like Trump getting indicted or better still …

Related commentaries:
Olympics and Politics like Marriage and divorce
Shani Davis

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