After years of preparation in South Korea, the Pyeongchang Olympics will open Feb. 9 in the mountainous northeast. But the crisis of the past year driven by North Korea's nuclear weapons program — and an unexpected outreach from leader Kim Jong Un — has added an element of geopolitical drama to the world's premier winter sporting festival. The XXIII Winter Olympiad will draw thousands of athletes and spectators to the Alpensia Resort in Pyeongchang county and to the nearby coastal town of Gangneung during Feb. 9-25. It will be followed by the Paralympic Games at the same venues during March 9-18. Beyond the pause in exchanges of hostile rhetoric between North Korea and the United States, the games themselves do not hold geopolitical relevance. Instead, what matters in that realm will come after the Olympic torch is extinguished, gauged by the North Korean reaction to the resumption of joint drills by the U.S. and South Korean militaries. Although it appears that the goodwill may last throughout the competition, events throughout the games could offer signs of what is to come.
Cracks in Inter-Korean Outreach
Although the Olympic teams of both Koreas will march as one in the opening ceremony and athletes from both will compete together on the women's ice hockey team, this bilateral goodwill can only go so far to change the broader picture. It is the U.S.-North Korean dynamic that will decide how the crisis plays out from there. The South is caught between the contradictory strategies of these two powers and will navigate between them. Watch for attempts at progress in South Korean President Moon Jae In's outreach to North Korea outside narrow Olympics-related issues, particularly during potential meetings with North Korean No. 2 Kim Yong Nam, who is attending the games.
The North is hoping that it can open up a hole in sanctions, attract South Korean tourists (not specifically banned by any resolutions and a key source of potential currency) and even reopen the joint Kaesong industrial complex. U.S. pressure will keep such openings narrow, but the efforts bear monitoring. South Korea will also make every effort to get U.S. and North Korean representatives to hold some sort of talks or consultation. The U.S. administration has left this possibility deliberately ambiguous. And a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in California on Feb. 5 was canceled reportedly in deference to the Pyeongchang Games — a possible signal of an open door. However, the current U.S. and North Korean postures will make such a meeting difficult, and in the long term, their interests are incompatible, leaving little room for progress.
Throughout the games, North Korea will likely try to further goad the South by emphasizing its willingness to walk away from the detente. It will use sudden switches and cancellations to express its displeasure at any sign that South Korea may follow a path that goes against the North's narrative or goals. It will also issue more warnings that U.S.-South Korea military exercises after the games will provoke a reaction. The games will also bring South Korean domestic acrimony about the North Korean rapprochement, particularly in the form of protests by the opposition right wing. Similar protests in January earned a stern rebuke in North Korean media and led to the cancellation of goodwill events between the North and South at North Korea's Mount Kumgang. Concretely, however, such protests will not necessarily change Moon's calculation about the warming of ties — because they come from the opposition, and besides some minor local races in June, Moon's party faces no imminent elections.
North Korea is, in part, using the Olympics detente, initiated when the North accepted the long-standing outreach from the South, to buy time.
North Korea Shaping the Narrative
North Korea is, in part, using the Olympics detente, initiated when the North accepted the long-standing outreach from the South, to buy time. The government in Pyongyang is framing a narrative that presents it as the good-faith actor in reaching out, giving it the ground to snap back after the games by portraying Washington as acting in bad faith. This dynamic plays into Chinese and Russian narratives that U.S. aggression is the only thing pushing North Korea toward hazardous, disruptive action. Because the North needs to continue weapons testing to prove its nuclear deterrent, such narratives can provide some cover for its erstwhile defenders in the United Nations. As such, North Korea is unlikely to engage in any tests or overt "provocations" during the games, but a military parade on Feb. 8 gave it a chance to display components of its "state nuclear force" to its people in a show of its newest ICBMs. Such displays would not jeopardize the games but will be a way to emphasize its strength and perhaps imply it has achieved its deterrent without engaging in tests that risk provoking U.S. ire (and potentially triggering a limited strike).
The U.S. Presents Its Side of the Story
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Pyongchang and will likely make remarks amplifying U.S. pressure. The White House has already made it clear that it views North Korean outreach as an attempt to "hijack" the narrative of the Olympic Games for its own gain. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address was crafted to counter this narrative, condemning North Korea's treatment of its civilians and outlining its threat to the United States. At the same time, leaks emphasized that the administration continued to consider launching a so-called "bloody nose" punitive strike on the North, with a continued de-emphasis on dialogue and the announcement of fresh sanctions. In a symbolic rebuke of Pyongyang, Pence will be accompanied to South Korea by the father of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who died in June 2017 shortly after being released from a North Korean prison. And, most important, watch for any signs that the United States and South Korea have settled on a date for their post-Olympics military drills.
The U.S. Military Buildup Continues
The United States has been careful to shape perceptions of the current rapprochement in terms of U.S. pressure, citing it as the compelling force bringing North Korea to any sort of cooperative outreach. Watch for high-profile interdictions of goods bound for North Korea and the shaming of North Korean suppliers. As part of this broader pressure front, and monthslong efforts to beef up options for military action, monitor the movement of U.S. carriers into the region. The USS Carl Vinson is already in the Western Pacific in the vicinity of the South China Sea. Another carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, is stationed in its Japanese home port, and North Korea has accused the United States of planning to send the USS John Stennis as well, although on the eve of the games, it was still in port at its Kitsap base in Washington.
Regardless of what takes place between the opening of the Olympics and the end of the Paralympics, the next phase of the Korean crisis will likely unfold with joint U.S.-South Korean military drills and a resumption of North Korean weapons tests as Pyongyang takes the final steps toward its nuclear deterrent. And as both sides pursue their mutually incompatible goals, it will leave little room for cooperation.