This remarkable breakthrough in diplomacy and comradeship between the two nations is worth celebrating, even as we remember that North Korea is a dictatorial and oppressive country, one that has committed a plethora of human rights atrocities against its citizens. It’s likely that North Korea sees its participation in these games as an opportunity to spread propaganda regarding its government and citizenry. But in fact, the presence of North Korean athletes at the games presents us with a unique chance to highlight and better understand the plight of North Korean citizens — and to give North Korean athletes a glimpse of the larger world beyond their own oppressive regime.
One of our most powerful tools of diplomacy is persuasion through example. While our country is not always perfect in living up to its ideals, our Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, religion, and expression that is entirely absent in North Korea. Those liberties have long appealed to people in other countries, and many have sought — sometimes at great personal cost — to promote similar democratic principles and human rights in their homelands. President Ronald Reagan understood the transformational power of America as an exemplar, a shining “city on a hill,” for the world.
North Korean athletes will doubtless be under stricter surveillance than their peers, but they will still get to observe the relative freedom and happiness among athletes from countries they’ve been told to eschew or disdain.