The ‘Peace Games’: North and South Korea’s Tumultuous Olympic History

North Korean and South Korean officials shake hands in agreement to send athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. CREDIT: NBC News

By: Allyson Roche ’19

Every time the Olympics roll around, scandals often overshadow the athletes themselves. From Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan’s feud in the 1990s to Russia’s doping scandal in 2016, controversy seems to follow the infamous international event. As the games began on February 9th, the location of the 2018 Winter Olympics – Pyeongchang County, South Korea, attracted most of the world’s attention.

The history between North Korea and South Korea is infamously tumultuous, and the Olympic Games have played a role in this rugged past. When the Olympic committee announced that the 1988 Summer Games would be held in Seoul, South Korea, the country was impoverished and and rebuilding from the Korean War. The country viewed the Olympics as it’s chance to shine again and to finally overcome the emotional trauma from the war.

After the announcement was made, North Korea was furious and insulted. Susan Chira, a reporter from The New York Times who covered the 1988 games, recalled how the North Koreans felt about the situation. She said, “They [saw] the South Koreans as this puppet regime,” and they thought, “‘Why isn’t the world recognizing our great, socialist state and our superiority?’”

The North Koreans then proposed that they ‘co-host’ the games, and after some conversations, South Korea ultimately declined.

Because the North Koreans were furious about the situation, United States Intelligence Agencies began looking at the likelihood of an attack from North Korea that would target the 1988 Olympic Games. The C.I.A. issued an assessment saying that Pyeongchang “appears set on attempting to ruin the games.” While South Korea excitedly made preparations for the games, they feared a potential attack.

On November 29th, 1987,  these fears of the South Koreans materialized.

Two North Korean agents, male and female, posed as Japanese tourists on a flight from Baghdad to Seoul. They received a bomb disguised as a transistor radio from two other agents. Once on the plane, the agents placed the radio in the overhead compartment. When the plane landed in its interim stop, Abu Dhabi, the two North Korean agents exited the plane, leaving the bomb in the overhead compartment. As the plane flew to Seoul, the bomb exploded, killing all 115 people onboard. All but two of the passengers were Korean.
The agents tried to escape in Abu Dhabi, and when authorities realized their passports were forged, they attempted suicide. The male agent died, but the female agent survived, was interrogated, and sentenced to death.

Despite the terror attack, both the U.S. and South Korea reached out to North Korea diplomatically, in advance of the Olympics. The Reagan administration, according to Chira, “basically [made] overtures, saying ‘if you show restraint, and you leave the Olympics alone, we’re willing to consider some modest diplomatic steps.’ At the same time, the newly elected president of South Korea reached out to the North and offered to start talks.” Once North Korea drew attention to itself through terror attacks, diplomacy and talks began. North Korea ultimately boycotted the games and did not send athletes.

At the games, there were no terror attacks. The attack prior contributed to increased communication, causing tensions to temporarily receded. Throughout history, “bad behavior is the only bargaining chip they really have, and that’s why we are in the position we are in now,”  said Chira.

A unified Korean women’s hockey team prepares for their competition. CREDIT: Getty Images

Similarly, as South Korea was preparing for the 2018 games, North Koreans met with South Koreans along the dangerous border for a handshake. The handshake symbolized the agreement for North Koreans to send a large team to the Olympics. They also agreed to create a unified South Korean and North Korean women’s hockey team that was to compete under a blue-and-white unification flag.

After peaceful and successful competitions, the ceremonies smoothly closed on the night of February 25th. Throughout the games, North Korea did not commit any actions similar to those leading up to the 1988 Olympics.

Carter Kessinger ‘19 said, “I think it’s great that Kim Jong-Un is willing to engage in any sort of diplomacy. It represents great strides in the movement to once again unify Korea. However, after the Olympics, things are supposed to go back to ‘normal’… While the United Korean hockey team is a nice story, it ultimately will lose significance if no long term progress can be achieved.”

Just like the Olympics in 1988, the Olympics being held thirty years later seem like a potential opportunity to lessen tensions, while also standing as a possible act of diplomacy. President Moon Jae-in’s goal was to use the 2018 Olympics as “peace games,” as a way to limit the threats between the U.S. And North Korea. As the ceremonies closed, South Korea’s Presidential Blue House said North Korea is “willing to have talks” with the U.S. Although the specifics of the “talks” was not specified, this is an extraordinary rare step forward.


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