Olympic Games? Is North Korea's bid to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea a genuine gesture of goodwill or an attempt to frustrate the U.S.?

Author:Anastasia, Laura
Position:Cover story
 
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This month, nearly 3,900 of the world's best athletes are descending on Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the Winter Olympics. They'll tackle the slopes and hit the ice to compete in 102 different events, including four additions: big-air snowboarding, alpine team skiing, mass start speed skating, and mixed doubles curling.

But sports won't be the Games' only focus. While athletes go for the gold in South Korea, much of the world's attention will be trained on the country's hostile neighbor, North Korea. The nation's brutal dictator, Kim Jong Un, has put the world on edge over the past year--testing ballistic missiles and threatening nuclear attacks against the U.S. and its allies in Asia, including South Korea and Japan.

Fears of a nuclear conflict have grown as Kim has repeatedly clashed with President Trump in the press and on social media. Kim has vowed to wipe out the United States. Thump, meanwhile, has threatened to "totally destroy North Korea."

Kim had initially planned to boycott the Games, which run from February 9 to 25. But last month--in a sudden and dramatic shift--North Korea announced that it would participate in the Winter Olympics for the first time in eight years.

In another move, North and South Korea have agreed to field a joint women's ice hockey team, the first time athletes from the Koreas will play together on an Olympic team. The two countries also decided to march together at the opening ceremony under a unified Korean flag, which hasn't happened in more than a decade.

The announcements came as officials from both countries met in person for the first time in more than two years.

Some people, including many South Koreans, are cautiously optimistic that North Korea's participation in the Games could help mend the nations' broken relationship. South Korea's newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, has said he wants to negotiate with North Korea, not confront it.

White House Response

But others worry that North Korea is trying to take advantage of South Korea's goodwill. They say Kim is trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea, and to gain relief from economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other nations over its nuclear program.

The White House has been careful not to dismiss the dialogue between the two countries but remains concerned it could derail the U.S. strategy of pressuring Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal. And U.S. officials have downplayed the significance of North and South Koreans competing together.

"Let's hope that the experience gives North Korean athletes a small taste of freedom and that it rubs off," says Michael Anton, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

Still, many people are hopeful that North Korea's involvement in the Games could be the start of a thaw in the nation's frosty relationship with South Korea--and the world. Says Olympics historian David Wallechinsky: "The Olympics are an opportunity to make a first step."

The Korean War

The Pyeongchang Games aren't the first time politics have claimed the Olympics' spotlight. Athletes have long used the competition to speak out against human rights abuses and other injustices (see "Politics & the Olympics"). Entire countries have even boycotted the Games for political reasons. More than 60 countries, including the U.S., skipped the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, for example.

But this time, the controversy hits especially close to home. The Games are just 60 miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), the heavily guarded boundary that has divided the two Koreas since the end of the Korean War (1950-53). That conflict, in which 34,000 Americans died, ended in a stalemate, with both sides agreeing to a ceasefire. But no peace treaty was signed, and the two countries--along with the U.S.--continue to keep troops stationed along the DMZ, in case the conflict resumes.

Today, South Korea is a thriving democracy with the 13th largest economy in the world. Communist North Korea, meanwhile, is one of the poorest countries on Earth, often facing shortages of food, water, and electricity. Kim pours much of his nation's meager resources into his military.

The Koreas' Olympic history has been rocky. When South Korea was selected to host the 1988 Summer Games, North Korea pushed to co-host. It was rejected--and retaliated by blowing up a Korean Air flight before the Games, killing 115 people.

But the countries have also presented a united front at the Olympics. The two nations marched together under a unified Korean flag at three opening ceremonies: in 2000, 2004, and 2006. And in 2016, two gymnasts, one from North Korea and the other from South Korea, snapped a selfie together, showcasing the potential power of the Games to promote peace. Though the public gushed over the photo, the Koreas' tense relationship didn't change.

Steps Toward Reconciliation

The North Korean situation isn't Pyeongchang's only challenge. The IOC banned Russia from competing this year as punishment for a government cover-up of athletes' use of performance-enhancing drugs, known as doping.

Another issue: fewer than three-quarters of the available tickets to the Games had been sold as of mid-January, according to the organizing committee.

Experts say...

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