“For North Korea, the Beijing Olympics is still someone else’s celebration, and what’s important now is promoting their own interests,” said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. “North Korea thinks it no longer needs to promote a peaceful image through the Olympics, as the United States will only notice them if they show an uncompromising stance through missile launches.”
North Korea has often used Olympic and other sporting events for political ends, perhaps most spectacularly at the Pyeongchang Winter Games in the south four years ago.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent his powerful sister Kim Yo Jong, the first member of that ruling family to set foot on South Korean soil since the Korean War, to the chilly opening ceremony. There she sat in the same spectator box as the South Korean President and the US Vice President.
None of the 22 North Korean athletes won a medal. But the country made a big impression in the stands, where its all-female cheer teams in matching red overalls performed meticulously choreographed routines alongside South Korean fans as they cheered for Korea’s first combined Olympic women’s ice hockey team.
A similar collaboration existed during the so-called Sunshine Era of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when North Korea received huge aid shipments from South Korea and the North often allowed its players to perform alongside South Koreans at Olympic Games and other sporting events.
Good feelings among Koreans in Pyeongchang helped Leader Kim pave the way for high-level nuclear summit talks with then-US President Donald Trump later in 2018. However, their diplomacy collapsed the next year after Trump rebuffed Kim’s calls for sanctions lifting in return for limited denuclearization.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a key player in 2018 Olympics diplomacy, has been a strong advocate of using the Beijing Games as another arena for Korean peace. He wanted the leaders of Korea, the United States, and China to gather in Beijing and symbolically declare the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, which is technically still ongoing.
However, the North said it would skip the games over the coronavirus pandemic and “enemy forces” movements, ignoring repeated offers of talks from Seoul and Washington as it resumed missile testing.
Last September, the International Olympic Committee suspended North Korea until the end of 2022 for refusing to send a team to the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which Pyongyang also canceled due to the virus. Still, there were hopes in Seoul that the Beijing Olympics could help defuse Korean animosities – and the IOC left the door open for athletes to compete if they didn’t represent their country. But the North did not go through.
North Korea’s decision to avoid the Olympics may reflect Pyongyang’s frustration with Seoul and its inability to force concessions from Washington, even as it proceeds with a tentative reopening of land-based trade with China after two years of pandemic border closures and economic decline. said Moon Seong Mook, an analyst at the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy.
Even with the IOC ban, analyst Moon said the North “could still have pursued diplomatic opportunities on the sidelines if the games were hosted by ally China.” Instead, the North Koreans say “they don’t want to get involved at all.”
Moreover, the North has embarked on a course that the West finds provocative.
In January alone, North Korea conducted seven rounds of missile tests, including an intermediate-range weapon capable of hitting the US Pacific territory of Guam. That’s a record number of monthly weapons tests since Kim came to power in December 2011. North Korea also recently threatened to lift a four-year moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests.
While Chinese officials may have been unhappy with North Korea’s testing frenzy just before the games begin, China appears publicly poised to tolerate the tests amid a growing confrontation with Washington.
The North certainly needs China. Beijing is North Korea’s economic pipeline, and its support is crucial if the North is to revive its pandemic-hit economy. On Friday, Kim sent a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping saying that the Beijing Olympics “strikingly demonstrate China’s dynamism” and that he would take bilateral ties with Xi to a new level.
Many observers expect numerous weapons tests after the games, which should increase the pressure on Washington.
This could include a missile launched from a submarine, a longer-range missile capable of reaching the American homeland, or a nuclear device. Other options include a forbidden rocket launch to put a spy satellite into orbit, or the unveiling of an advanced submarine.
The North may want these tests as a way to influence or draw attention to the March 9 presidential election in South Korea, the annual joint US-South Korea military exercises in March, or the 110th birthday of state founder Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong make us grandfather, on April 15th.
It’s unclear whether any high-profile launches will result in the United States lifting sanctions on North Korea, gaining international recognition as a legitimate nuclear state, or providing security guarantees.
The Biden administration has offered open talks but has shown no willingness to ease sanctions unless North Korea takes real steps to abandon its nuclear weapons program. For its part, North Korea has said it will not return to talks unless the United States first abandons its hostile policy, which could be a reference to US troops stationed in the south and international sanctions on its illegal weapons program.
If past events are any indication, Pyongyang and Washington may eventually meet again after a period of heightened confrontation, which the nations have repeatedly done since North Korea’s first nuclear crisis in the early 1990s.
But Nam, the professor, said US-North Korea relations are unlikely to see a major breakthrough under the Biden administration.
“In the past 30 years, they confronted each other extremely before they met again and made some deals,” said Kim Yeol Soo, an expert at South Korea’s Korea Institute for Military Affairs. “The frightening thing about this iterative process is the fact that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have steadily progressed in the meantime.”