Even at the height of celebrations over winning the right to host the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in the city of PyeongChang, South Koreans have a shadow of anxiety as to how North Koreans might be reacting to it. This is because the past decades history of inter-Korean relations over the includes some extremely serious incidents which analysts linked to the North’s attempt to disrupt major sports festivals taking place in the South.
We hate to recall it, but Pyongyang staged one of its bloodiest terror attacks against South Koreans in October 1983 in the Burmese capital Rangoon (now Yangon of Myanmar) where President Chun Doo-hwan was on a state visit. Chun escaped unharmed but 17 members of his entourage were killed. The outrage came two years after the IOC awarded the 24th Summer Olympics to Seoul and preparations were in full swing.
Another tragedy was recorded on Nov. 29, 1987 when Korean Air Flight 858 with 115 people aboard disappeared in the Andaman Sea. Two North Korean agents were arrested in Abu Dhabi; one poisoned himself to death and the other, a 25-year-old woman, confessed to planting explosive devices on the B-707 airliner on a direct order from Kim Jong-il. Pyongyang wanted to scare world athletes away from the Seoul Olympics, South Korean authorities announced.
In June 2002 when the FIFA World Cup matches were being held in South Korea and Japan, North Korea’s unprovoked naval attack in the West Sea left six South Korean sailors dead and a dozen others wounded. Tension remains high in the waters around Baengnyeong and Yeonpyeong islands where the North’s torpedo attack and artillery shelling last year claimed 48 lives.
As South Korea is about to achieve the “grand slam” of the world’s top sports events with the Winter Olympics after the Summer Olympics and the FIFA World Cup, pure envy and jealousy would drive the Pyongyang leadership to do something again to deter the South from running ahead in growing distance from it. The 1988 Seoul Olympics put South Korea at center stage, the 2002 World Cup confirmed the South’s stature as a sports and economic powerhouse, and the 2018 Winter Olympics will give it membership in the advanced club of global society.
Seoul-based media specializing in affairs inside the North report random reactions from its citizens to South Korea’s hosting the Winter Games several years later. Quoting candid comments from ordinary North Korean residents, the Daily NK and other news outlets observed that they would now better realize what South Korea truly is and feel a stronger psychological pull from the advanced South.
It is therefore likely that the Pyongyang authorities would make efforts to counter at least the imbalance between the two Koreas, at least on a superficial level, by erecting numerous monumental structures in the capital city as they did in the 1980s. In 1989, the year after the Seoul Olympics, Pyongyang staged the World Students and Youth Sports Festival, and we can imagine similar wasteful undertakings in the North again later in this decade in a vain effort to catch the eyes of the world.
Kim Jong-il and his son Jong-un would not just be sitting idly by during the lead-up to the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, only about 100 kilometers south of the inter-Korean border. In one direction, the North’s rulers would strengthen control over residents, for fear that the sight of the global sports festival in the South could have far greater impact on Northern society than in 1988. In the other, a new wave of military provocations may be launched to highlight security problems on the Korean Peninsula.
The North Koreans will then face the dilemma of whether to boycott the Winter Olympics in 2018 as they did the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Much will depend on how inter-Korean relations develop in the intervening years, but the Olympics could offer an opportunity for the two Koreas to get their pending problems over with if Pyongyang takes steps to build trust with sincerity. While both history and the current state of affairs offer a bleak outlook, we need to explore all possible avenues in pursuit of the Olympic goal of universal participation, ensuring no harassment from the North.