North Korean Participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics

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2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics mascots stand side by side. Courtesy of Kārlis Dambrāns and Wikimedia Commons.

North Korea will be attending the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The last time the Olympics were held in South Korea in Summer of 1988, North Korea’s current leader Kim Jong-un was just four years old, and his father and then lea­­der, Kim Jong-il, boycotted the Games. Fast forward to early January this year, Kim Jong-un expressed a surprising appeal for improved ties with South Korea, and South and North Korean officials met for the first time in two years for a talk that resulted in the agreement. The talks defused this past year’s tensions over North Korea’s expanding nuclear and missile programs, and security concerns for the Games have also been relieved. As Park Sung-Bae, a sports industry expert from South Korea’s Hanyang University said, “no one would now think the North could lob nuclear bombs over the heads of its own athletes.”

During the talks, North Korea said its Olympic delegation would include officials, athletes, cheerleaders, journalists and others, expected to go into the hundreds. South and North Korea also agreed to march together during the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. The two Koreas first marched together under a unified flag in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. However, due to a shift in political tides, the two countries have not marched together since the 2007 Asian Games in China. Thus, the sight of a South and North Korean delegation marching side by side once again may signify the start of renewed diplomatic ties.

With this news, some may wonder if the recently increased sanctions on North Korea will have any effect on North and South Korea’s seemingly rekindled relationship. Currently, it is unclear who will pay for additional training, transport, and accommodations for North Korea’s delegation. In past events, South Korea often paid for the North’s delegations to attend competitions. Last year, South Korea indicated the IOC would shoulder some of the costs this time. Experts are divided on whether such support will technically breach UN sanctions against North Korea.

South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo argued that paying for North Korea’s participation or providing a means of transport violates UNSC resolution 2270, sanctions against North Korea adopted in 2016. The publication argued that paying for travel and lodging expenses violates the “bulk cash” provision—which is in provision 11 of resolution 2094 of March 2013—and providing a means of transport also violates provision 19 of resolution 2270, which disallows providing vessels or aircrafts to North Korea. However, the South Korean government believes paying for a North Korean Olympic delegation’s trip would be permissible. The UN sanctions ban monetary or transport support for “non-humanitarian purposes,” and South Korea believes any support in connection with the Games is for the purpose of fostering peace and communication.

At the same time, the definition of “humanitarian” is not completely clear either, and perhaps stretching the definition through various aid in association with the Olympics reduces the effect and power of the UN sanctions. While North Korean participation may be a sign of thawing relations, there are fears that North Korea has ulterior motives. Kim’s sudden willingness to reach out to the South could be a strategy to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington. The North may also be using the current situation to request other concessions from South Korea. For instance, North Korea has repeatedly called for an end to joint military drills by the U.S. and South Korea which usually take place in February and March on the peninsula, and while the drills will be postponed to after the Olympics, North Korea has once again demanded a permanent halt to the exercises and deployment of strategic American weapons in the South. The official Rodong Sinmum of North Korea wrote, “if the South Korean authorities really want détente and peace, they should first stop all the military acts they have waged with the U.S. against their brethren.”

With these issues looming in the background, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the peaceful running of the Winter Games. The “Olympic Truce,” is adopted every two years before the Olympic Games and this time, the General Assembly expressed “its expectation that PyeongChang 2018 will be a meaningful opportunity to foster an atmosphere of peace, development, tolerance and understanding on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia.” Hopefully North Korea’s presence at the Games will help to promote this atmosphere of peace and advance it beyond the PyeongChang stadium. Despite widespread and well-grounded skepticism and fear, North Korea’s participation is still a step forward. War is not an option to solve the North Korean problem, and dialogue remains the most viable and favorable option. Any form of communication and cooperation is better than none, and a chance for the two Koreas to practice seeing eye to eye.

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Joanna Hwang is a second-year J.D. student at Columbia Law School and a Staff Member of the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law. She holds an A.B. from Princeton University where she studied English.