Six months from now, thousands of athletes from around the world are set to gather at a mountainous site at the uppermost eastern corner of South Korea, about an hour from the border with North Korea, for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Pyeongchang lies in mountainous terrain at the uppermost eastern corner of South Korea, about an hour from the border with North Korea. Normally, its proximity to the Demilitarized Zone, and the North beyond, would not be an issue.
But six months from now, thousands of athletes from around the world are set to gather at that remote location for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Much can change, either good or bad, as the clock ticks down to the opening ceremony Feb. 9.
But given the escalated tensions in the region — with President Donald Trump threatening “fire and fury” and North Korea responding with plans to send a volley of missiles toward the U.S. territory of Guam — Pyeongchang’s location has become a global concern.
U.S. warning: Defense Secretary James Mattis warned Monday that if North Korea carried out its threat to launch missiles toward Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, “we’ll take it out,” suggesting the U.S. military would attempt to use antimissile interceptors on land and ships. North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile last month for the first time, and U.S. intelligence agencies assess that it can build a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop a long-range missile, although it’s not clear if it can target U.S. cities. North Korea said its autocratic ruler, Kim Jong Un, had reviewed a plan to fire four midrange missiles over Japan and into international waters at least 20 miles off Guam, where the U.S. military operates several major bases.
General in Asia: Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arrived late Monday in Beijing to meet with Chinese military leaders. Earlier, he met with South Korea President Moon Jae-in at Osan Air Base, a U.S. Air Force base about 40 miles south of Seoul.
— Los Angeles Times
Though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has resisted any knee-jerk reaction to the battle of words between Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, it clearly is listening.
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“We are monitoring the situation on the Korean Peninsula very closely,” an IOC spokeswoman said
This isn’t the first time the Olympic movement has butted up against politics or possible violence. No matter how often IOC leaders talk about “the autonomy of sport,” the real world keeps intruding.
“The Games have always been politicized,” said Michael Heine, director of the International Center for Olympic Studies in Canada. “From Mexico City to Beijing to Berlin, there are plenty of examples.”
The 1916 Summer Olympics — scheduled for Berlin — were scratched when World War I engulfed Europe. World War II similarly forced the cancellation of the Summer and Winter Games in 1940 and 1944.
In other instances, the competition was shadowed by regional wars, economic depression, boycotts, disease and terrorism.
Palestinian terrorists raided the athletes’ village during the 1972 Munich Olympics, a siege that led to the deaths of 11 Israeli team members. At the 1996 Atlanta Games, a bomb exploded in a downtown park, killing two and injuring dozens more.
A Chechen rebel leader urged Islamist extremists to “do their utmost to derail” the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia. Before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, the Zika virus outbreak was declared a global health emergency.
In each of these cases, the Games proceeded on schedule.
Still, experts wonder if the Korean crisis might be different. Heine asked: “Will there be a tipping point? Could the Games be moved or postponed at this late date?”
When Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Games, there was concern that North Korea might open a dam on its side of the border, sending floodwaters toward the southern capital city.
This time, the seeming unpredictability of Trump and Kim is most worrisome to Heine. He said he suspects that some countries — especially those where winter sports are not that popular — might reconsider sending teams.
As a University of California professor who studies international politics, Steven Weber does not believe that athletes will be at risk in Pyeongchang, but he said the Winter Games “will give the North Koreans an opportunity to make a different kind of noise.”
“The thing they like to do is demonstrate their ability to disrupt other people’s plans,” Weber said. “It gives them a leverage they wouldn’t otherwise have.”
The communist state has demonstrated a growing expertise in cyberattacks that might allow it to cause havoc, if only momentarily, during the 17 days of competition.
“They might have the capability to turn the lights out for an hour … not to hurt anybody but to show they can keep this thing from coming off smoothly,” Weber said.
China could be in position to prevent such trouble.
Not only are the Chinese a major trade partner with North Korea, they also have a vested interest in the Olympic movement, given that they are scheduled to host the Winter Games in 2022.
Anything that tarnishes the IOC’s brand would damage their plans to make a splash five years from now.
“They want to be seen as an important Olympic player,” Heine said. “So the onus falls on the Chinese government.”
This influence could lead to a diplomatic solution as it relates to the Games.
Talks of forming a North-South hockey team and holding ski events north of the border have fallen through, but there could be time for other forms of diplomacy between neighbors still technically at war — their 1950s conflict ended by a cease-fire and the creation of the 160-mile Demilitarized Zone.
“Sports are one of the few things that could be offered to North Korea as a face-saver for backing down a little bit,” Weber said.
It is probably too late to move the Games to another country. Short of armed conflict in the region, postponement seems just as unlikely.