Wednesday, February 7, 2018 at 6:33 AM

PyeongChang: Olympics and Politics Playing Out like Marriage and Divorce

Posted by Anthony L. Hall

The 2018 PyeongChang Olympics get underway tomorrow. Yet the media are dedicating relatively little coverage to the Opening Ceremony or the athletes.

Instead, they are focusing on the nuclear brinkmanship between North Korea and the United States, which will hover over South Korea (and these Games) like a Damoclean sword.

But one can hardly blame the media. The titles to just a few of my recent commentaries on point explain why:

  • “Trump Double Dares After Jong-un Crosses His Red Line … Again,” August 12, 2017
  • “America’s Trump vs. North Korea’s Jong-un: the Ultimate Reality-TV Death Match,” August 9, 2017
  • “‘Leading from Behind’ – Trump Depending on China to Protect Us from North Korea,” April 21, 2017

Not to mention recently declassified CIA documents, which show the extent to which North Korea was determined to terrorize the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul – and blew up a South Korean airliner that killed 115 in an effort to deter people from attending the games.

(Fox News, January 9, 2017)

In fact, just weeks ago, it was threatening to terrorize these Games. But I never regarded that as anything more than a bargaining feint.

Granted, apocalyptic rhetoric between North Korea and the United States unnerved and potholed the run-up to these games. But I have less concern about war breaking out today than I did twelve years ago, when I wrote the commentary titled:

  • “Why Do World Leaders Even Give North Korea’s President the Time of Day,” October 4, 2006

Frankly, as crazy as Jong-un and/or Trump might seem, each knows it would be Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to trigger a war that would likely end in an exchange of nuclear weapons.

But what truly distinguishes these Games from Seoul in 1988 is the courting North and South Korea engaged in to present to unified front. In other words, North Korea is clearly more interested this time in participating than boycotting … and blowing things up.

This is why participating countries breathed a sigh of relief when the Koreas certified their shotgun wedding. Its consummation will see athletes from both countries not only marching under a unified flag but also competing as a unified team. Never mind that, in nearly every case, the latter will amount to South Koreans competing and North Koreans cheering – complete with squads from its 500-member rah-rah delegation of pompom girls, marching band, and performance artists deployed to all major venues.

The United States is the only major country not willing to shut up and forever hold its peace. But this is just the latest case of the Trump administration isolating it from multilateral agreements — among them the Paris Climate Change accord, the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, Jerusalem status quo, and the Iran nuclear deal.

In this case, Vice President Mike Pence will be executing a passive-aggressive protest by playing the kind of gamesmanship Donald Trump played during his presidential campaign.

In a move sure to annoy Pyongyang, US Vice President Mike Pence will take the father of the late Otto Warmbier, an American student who was jailed in North Korea, to the Opening Ceremony.

(CNN, February 5, 2018)

This is reminiscent of the shameful stunt Trump pulled at his second presidential debate against Hillary. In that case, he held a pre-debate news conference with four women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault and then invited them to sit center stage for the main event.

That Warmbier stunt would have been enough to make the United States the idiomatic skunk at this Olympic party. But Pence just launched this stink bomb – from a safe distance in Japan – in advance of his arrival in South Korea for Friday’s Opening Ceremony:

I’m announcing today the United States of America will soon unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever. And we will continue to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile program once and for all.

(Reuters, February 7, 2018)

Frankly, imposing sanctions to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear program is rather like building a wall to get drug cartels to abandon their trafficking.

But Pence is also floating the idea that this announcement might entice the North Koreans into direct talks behind the scenes at these Games. Except that this is even crazier than Trump continually insulting Democrats and then wondering why he can’t get them to vote for his legislative agenda.

Meanwhile, North Korea responded by announcing that it will be sending the beloved sister of its “Dear Leader” to the Opening Ceremony. The clear message is that she will be bearing flowers to cover up the stench of America’s stink-bomb diplomacy. And Trump would have the world think Jong-un is the crazy one …

I just hope Trump hasn’t completely debased Pence’s Midwestern politeness. Because South Korean President Moon Jae-in might orchestrate a chance encounter between him and Jong-un’s sister. And it would be a shame if, trying to reinforce his Trumpian rhetoric, Pence comes across like a typical ugly American.

But it speaks volumes that the United States is spoiling for a fight at these “Peace Olympics,” which a longstanding ally is hosting no less. This is what the exercise of American soft power has been reduced to: juvenile stunts, performed by hollow men, full of “fire and fury,” accomplishing nothing.

All the same, there’s no denying simmering resentment among

  • South Korean athletes over having their esprit de corps disrupted.
  • South Korean nationalists over the eagerness of their leader to pacify Jong-un turning these Game into a North Korean pantomime.

  • North Korean athletes over being gawked at and treated like the first blacks to integrate white schools in the United States.

  • Serious politicians everywhere over concerns that this shotgun marriage is just continuing to normalize and reward North Korea’s extortionist brand of nuclear brinkmanship.

I trust it’s obvious why all groups feel the way they do. And you can probably sympathize with each one.

But, as indicated above, informed indifference has guided my feelings towards North Korea for more than a decade. I am also mindful that political leaders have always used athletes as pawns. And athletes have always had little choice but to play along. It was thus, for example, when

  • German Chancellor Adolf Hitler used athletes to showcase his Nazi propaganda during the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

  • African leaders used athletes to register their opposition to South Africa’s apartheid regime by boycotting the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
  • US President Jimmy Carter used athletes to register his opposition to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan by boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko did the same when he retaliated by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s used athletes in state-sponsored program of doping for national glory at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. (This compelled the IOC to ban Russian Track and Field athletes from the 2016 Rio Olympics and forbid the Russian flag from even being flown at these 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Russian athletes who qualify to compete must do so under a neutral flag: So, from fake national glory to abject national disgrace. Thanks, Putin!)

This is why one can fairly argue that the Olympics are just politics by other means.

Apropos of which, I would not be surprised if South Korea has contracted to appease North Korea by granting it full sway to produce the Opening Ceremony. No doubt North Korea would seize this international platform to put on a brazenly jingoistic display, hence the 500-member delegation of performers mentioned above. In fact, a pair of figure skaters are the only two of its twenty-two athletes who actually qualified to compete. Therefore, it can hardly rely on athletic performances to vindicate its ostentatious national pride.

On the other hand, producing parades is to North Korea what producing movies is to Hollywood. And nothing would bring this hermit kingdom more Olympic glory than putting on a show that rivals the one China put on for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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)

Bring it on … Koreas!

Finally, as is so often the case with shotgun marriages, this one will end in divorce as soon as organizers extinguish the Olympic flame. And the Korean Peninsula will return to the status quo ante, where North is North, and South is South … until political expedience marries the two again.

Related commentaries:
Trump double dares
Trump vs Jong-un
Leading from behind
Why give time of day
Isolating America
Trump’s Fire and fury
Beijing Opening Ceremony

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