North Korea's undeserved Olympic glory

Most South Koreans support North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Games. But Moon Jae In’s more compliant decisions to gather Koreans under a unification flag for the Opening Ceremony and especially to create a combined Korean women’s ice-hockey team—which means a number of South Korean hockey players will be forced to cede ice time to their new North Korean teammates, at least three of whom must dress for every game—are less popular. (South and North Korean athletes will compete separately in all other sports.) The South Korean government has also been criticized for joining the International Olympic Committee in paying the North Korean delegation’s expenses. Conservative opponents of Moon, who tend to be more resistant to engagement with the North than Moon’s liberal wing, now ridicule the Games as the “Pyongyang Olympics,” in a reference to North Korea’s capital. The rebuttal is that desperate times call for less-than-ideal Olympics. The joint Opening Ceremony entrance and hockey team “aren’t about handing the Olympics over to North Korea,” an editorial in the South Korean newspaper Hankyoreh argued. “They are a crucial effort to sustain the mood for talks about denuclearization even after the Olympics.”

Even if the costs of these concessions are worth the benefits—such as a literally peaceful Olympics and a de-escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula—the benefits will probably be short-lived, according to Andrew Bertoli, a political scientist who studies the relationship between international sports, nationalism, and interstate conflict. In the most extreme example, Adolf Hitler soft-pedaled his racism and militarism during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, only to soon initiate World War II and the Holocaust. Vladimir Putin waited until just after the Sochi Olympics to intervene militarily in Ukraine. “We shouldn’t fall for the temptation to see this short-term warming effect as an indication that these sporting events are actually leading to any type of long-term improvements in the behavior of these countries,” Bertoli explained recently on the Global Dispatches podcast.