Korean Olympics: North to South

By: Max Mittleman

Few countries find their way into the headlines as much as North Korea. Typically, the press coverage of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is negative. Since its creation in 1948, North Korea has been an extremely isolated communist country.[1] However, one significant deviation from such isolation has been the Olympic Games.[2] North Korea has participated in the Winter Olympics since 1964 and the Summer Olympics since 1972, with a few notable boycotts.[3] With the upcoming Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the question has arisen again, will North Korea emerge and compete?

The Start of North Korea

As World War II came to a close in 1945 Korea, previously under Japanese control, was working to establish itself as an independent nation.[4] Deep political divides within the Korean population emerged between the North and South.[5] Kim Il-Sung, who had been training with the Soviets, returned to the North in 1945.[6] By 1946 Il-Sung established the Korean Worker’s Party, which quickly became the strongest political power in the North.[7] In 1948, North Korea was officially established as a communist regime.[8] Il-Sung reigned until his death in 1998 and is still considered the eternal leader of the country.[9]

The Korean War

On June 23, 1950, North Korean troops pushed into South Korea, beginning the Korean War.[10] While often overshadowed by the Vietnam War, the Korean War set the stage for diplomatic tension between communist and capitalist regimes for decades to come.[11] During the three-year war, the US dropped more than 635,000 tons of explosives on North Korea, destroying more cities than in Japan or Germany during World War II.[12] Initially, North Korean troops took 90% of the South.[13] Shortly after, US intervention from the water turned the tides.[14] US forces pushed Il-Sung’s troops back to the north, triggering China’s intervention in October 1950.[15] Once US and Chinese forces joined the South and North troops respectively, each side held their ground at the original border for two years.[16] Finally, an armistice was established in July 1953, effectively stopping the active fighting.[17] This agreement did not come before 36,000 US soldier deaths, hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldier deaths, and millions of Korean deaths (many civilians).[18] It is notable that technically the Korean War never ended.[19] The fighting stopped, and North Korea, China, and the US agreed to the armistice, but South Korea did not agree and no formal peace treaty was reached.[20]

North Korea Recently

During President Trump’s first year, tension with North Korea has consistently intensified.[21] Such tension; however, is nothing new. In 1994, President Clinton was determined to prevent North Korea from successfully developing nuclear weapons.[22] Concerns were high enough the Clinton had considered preemptive strikes on the nation; however, citing “staggering losses both sides would suffer,” the President opted not to attack.[23]

During President Bush’s tenure as president, the approach toward North Korea was very different from Clinton.[24] While Clinton sought agreements, Bush advocated for regime change.[25] Although conducting a strong regime change campaign, North Korea held strong and did not yield to the President’s pressures.[26]

President Obama attempted to start right away with negotiations, but was greeted with missile and nuclear tests.[27] An agreement, tagged as the Leap Day Agreement, was reached; however, it fell apart in three weeks due to a satellite launch from Pyongyang.[28] While strong attempts at negotiations coupled with patience looked like they had potential, not much was improved.[29] North Korea continued to launch missile tests and attempt to agitate the world around them leading to little change.[30]

President Trump’s attempts to engage in dialogue with North Korea have been erratic. While Rex Tillerson encouraged North Korea to come to the table to discuss, Trump claimed “talking is not the answer!”[31] There were times when Trump stated he would be “honored” to talk with Kim Jung-Un, the dictator of North Korea.[32] A barrage of tweets went out with Trump calling Kim Jung-Un “rocketman” and attempting to goad him into reactions.[33] The tweeting at North Korea culminated with Trump claiming his nuclear button was bigger than Jung-Un’s.[34] Now it appears that Trump is again interested in negotiating with North Korea, but it will take time to see what ends up happening.[35]

North Korea and the Olympics

While North Korea is known as a “hermit kingdom,” one way it joins the world is through the Olympic Games. As stated above, North Korea has participated in the Olympics since the 1960’s. North Korea’s Olympic endeavors have not been without excitement through the years. Both the 1984 games in Los Angeles and the 1988 games in Seoul were boycotted by North Korea.[36] The 1984 boycott was attributed to the boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow by various countries including the US.[37] North Korea’s 1988 boycott was much more notable as it was a four year long campaign.[38] Upon learning that the 1988 games would be held in Seoul, North Korea’s biggest enemy, the country instantly boycotted.[39] From 1984 until the games North Korea campaigned for a site change to a neutral site or to have the two countries jointly host the games.[40]

North Korea is known as a very poor country.[41] However, the production of the athletes in the summer games is surprisingly good.[42] North Korean athletes are provided with state of the art facilities and live “luxurious” lifestyles in preparation.[43] Once at the games, athletes from North Korea do not necessarily live the same live as other athletes in Olympic Village.[44] Due to the risk of defection, North Korean athletes are contained during their stay.[45] Additionally, North Korean Olympic athletes have more pressure on them then other athletes.[46] While successful athletes are well received, unsuccessful athletes are shamed.[47]

Olympics = Negotiations?

With the upcoming Winter Olympics located in Pyeongchang all eyes are on the Korean Peninsula. Although they initially missed the deadline for registration, the International Olympic Committee extended the deadline for North Korea.[48] A pair of figure skaters from North Korea has officially secured a spot in the games and a number of other athletes may eventually register.[49]

While for most, participation in the Olympics is the norm and registration happens automatically, North Korean participation in the Olympic games hosted by South Korea is symbolically significant. Additionally, in his New Year’s Day Speech Kim Jong-Un stated he was “open to dialogue” with Seoul.[50] In addition to open dialogue, North Korea’s participation eliminates the fear of disruption.[51] Until registration occurred, many were concerned that North Korea would act out in a way that would disrupt the games if they were not participating.[52] These fears were somewhat grounded by the 1988 Korean Air flight bombing conducted by North Korean agents in an attempt to disrupt the Seoul games.[53]


Considering that in the past few months, both President Trump and Kim Jong-Un have used threatening rhetoric with regard to nuclear weapons, North Korea’s participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics is an interesting development.[54] Kim Jong-Un’s new rhetoric of “unity” and “finding a solution to lower tension” is a breath of fresh air for the peninsula. Considering the long history of tension between the North and South, a solution will not occur overnight, but engaging in negotiations is a step in the right direction. What transpires at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will be very interesting for the future of the Korean Peninsula.



[1] North Korea History, History (Jan. 1, 2018), http://www.history.com/topics/north-korea-history.

[2] Adam Taylor, The Olympic Games are tough for all athletes. For North Koreans, they’re worse., Wash Post (Aug. 10, 2016), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/08/10/the-olympics-are-tough-for-all-athletes-for-north-koreans-theyre-worse/?utm_term=.5a4a67d3aef6.

[3] Fyodor Tertitskiy, North Korea and the Olympic Games, NKNews (Aug. 22, 2016), https://www.nknews.org/2016/08/north-korea-and-the-olympic-games/.

[4] Young Ick Lew, North Korea, Britannica, (Nov. 23, 2017), https://www.britannica.com/place/North-Korea/Cultural-life#ref34947.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Liam Stack, Korean War, a ‘Forgotten’ Conflict That Shaped the Modern World, NY Times (Jan. 1, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/01/world/asia/korean-war-history.html.

[11] Id.

[12] Tom O’Connor, What War With North Korea Looked Like in the 1950s and Why it Matters Now, Newsweek (May 4, 2017), http://www.newsweek.com/us-forget-korean-war-led-crisis-north-592630.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Stack supra note 10.

[20] Id.

[21] Priyanka Boghani, The U.S. and North Korea on the Brink: A Timeline, PBS (Oct. 4, 2017), https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/the-u-s-and-north-korea-on-the-brink-a-timeline/.

[22] Ten Galen Carpenter, The 1994 North Korea Crisis: Military Force a Bad Idea Then (and a Worse One Now), The National Interest (Apr. 18, 2017), http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-skeptics/the-1994-north-korea-crisis-military-force-bad-idea-then-20251.

[23] Id.

[24] Sarah Lohschelder, Three Presidents Facing North Korea – A Review of US Foreign Policy,  Huffington Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/young-professionals-in-foreign-policy/three-presidents-facing-n_b_9335546.html.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Steve Benen, Trump adopts a new posture on talks with North Korea, MSNBC (Jan. 8, 2018), http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/trump-adopts-new-posture-talks-north-korea.

[32] Id.

[33] Donald Trump (@realdonaldtrump), Twitter, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor.

[34] Id.

[35] Benen supra note 31.

[36] Adam Taylor, Why the Olympics matter when it comes to North Korea, Wash Post (Jan. 3, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/01/03/why-the-olympics-matter-when-it-comes-to-north-korea/?utm_term=.ba51c476f468.

[37] Tertitskiy supra note 3.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id.

[41] Id.

[42] Id.

[43] Taylor supra note 36.

[44] Id.

[45] Id.

[46] Taylor supra note 36.

[47] Id.

[48] Karolos Grohmann, Olympics: IOC extends North Korea deadline for Pyeongchang Games, Reuters (Jan. 8, 2018), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-olympics-2018-northkorea/olympics-ioc-extends-north-korea-deadline-for-pyeongchang-games-idUSKBN1EX1H8.

[49] Id.

[50] Id.

[51] Taylor supra note 36.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Id.