Mike Pence strikes first in Olympic chess match with North Korea

Eric Adelson

The North Koreans are taking advantage of the Olympics, and the American vice president is not having it.

On Monday, Mike Pence made a loud and clear statement days before the beginning of the Games. He announced that Fred Warmbier will join him at the Opening Ceremony on Friday in PyeongChang, South Korea. Warmbier’s son, Otto, was detained in North Korea and returned home a year later in such terrible condition that he died two days after arriving back in the U.S. He was only 22.

The North Koreans claimed botulism, but doctors disputed that, and Otto’s memory has been a reminder of what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un represents. At the State of the Union, President Donald Trump addressed the Warmbier family and said, “You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength inspires us all.”

That “menace” will use the Games as a vehicle to show off to the world, and more than a few South Koreans are unhappy about it. The North Koreans are sending a contingent of athletes, along with a cheerleading squad, and experts say part of the reason is to grab a piece of the world’s spotlight.

“North Korea will get to have a complete image makeover in a world stage,” said Sue Mi Terry, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies at a January press conference. “That’s why they’re sending the dancers, the band and the cheerleaders and so on, to normalize themselves. It’s a good opportunity to have an image makeover.”

Protesters in South Korea greet a delegation of North Korean cheerleaders who will perform at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. (Getty)

This does have some positive aspects. It’s a way to ease the tension between the two Korean nations, at least for a short time while the world’s attention is on the peninsula. That has not been a sure thing in the past. In 1987, months before the Summer Olympics came to South Korea, an agent of the North placed a bomb on a commercial airliner. The plane exploded and 115 lives were lost.

“The mission,” the bomber told CNN, “was to block the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympic Games.”

The sporting event went on as planned, but so did the cold war between the two nations. Now the Olympics have returned to South Korea and not everyone in the host country sees the current détente as anything other than a game within the Games.

Take, for example, the South Korean women’s hockey team, which will now include a contingency from the North in what will amount to a joint squad between the two nations.

“There is a lot of sympathy for the South Korean ice hockey players,” says Sokeel Park, a director for Liberty in North Korea, which is a group dedicated to helping North Korean refugees. “They have been preparing, sacrificing and looking forward to these Olympic Games, only for politicians to run roughshod over their team and throw in some North Korean players at the last minute.”

It’s a tricky situation for American leadership, as de-escalation of conflict (and nuclear capabilities) is the ultimate goal but it’s more than possible that North Korea will go right back to brinksmanship as soon as the three-week commercial is over.

A delegation of North Korean cheerleaders arrive in South Korea ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. (Getty)

On Wednesday in Japan, Pence announced “the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever.” Yet on when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked about the goal of the trip to the Olympics, this was his answer: “We’re there to first support the successful Olympics by the South Korean government. We’re also there to support all the United States athletes that’ll be competing, and we expect to bring home a lot of medals. And whatever happens while the vice president is there, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

So the pressure is on via sanctions, yet the door is slightly ajar to something constructive. Kim Yong Nam, one of North Korea’s top officials, is visiting for the Games. So is Kim Yo-jong, sister of Kim Jong Un, according to South Korea’s Unification Ministry. So that in itself is significant.

The Olympics have always been about sport, but they’ve also always been about the geopolitical chess match. One only need look back four years to Sochi, when unrest in Ukraine bubbled over at the very end of Vladimir Putin’s expensive show. Russia intervened and U.S. sanctions ensued only weeks later. The fallout from that lasts to this day.

Ideally the aftermath of these Olympics is far calmer. But the tough talk from Pence indicates the game within the Games will last after the torch is extinguished.

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