Olympic Geopolitics

And the winner of the Gold for Realpolitik... North Korea


The joint Korean teams and use of a Korean unity flag has been the 'feel good story' of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics. Koreans have been able to dream of being reunified, global fears of a Korean war have lessened, and North Korea has been able to show their 'kinder side'. Yet the laudable notions of respect and peace that sport can bring forth will soon be very quickly overtaken by the cynical realities of geopolitics. 


This is hardly the first time an Olympic Games has taken place in a highly politicised environment, nor is it the first one to be manipulated in order to propagandise and whitewash the excesses of a brutal state.


In the 1980s the Olympics became a political focus as both Cold War powers hosted a Summer Games and boycotted each other's, all just a few years after Olympic notions of unity through sport had been ridiculed by the murder of 11 Israelis by Palestinian terrorists at Munich 1972.


But it is the infamous Berlin Summer Games of 1936 - that gave Hitler multiple propaganda coups that he was able to use to lessen international scrutiny and criticism of his antisemitic policies and military build-up - that will likely have most parallel with what is playing out at PyeongChang 2018. 


A key North Korean tactic at the Games is to create a 'nothing to see here' dynamic, as Hitler did so very effectively in 1936, with returning spectators and journalists reporting that notions of North Korean political extremism and warmongering must have been exaggerated if not entirely contrived.


Every expression of Korean Unity - something that has totally understandably excited and energised millions of South Korean citizens tired of decades of division and tension - every example of comradeship between North and South fans and/or athletes, only go to distract from the political and military realities that existed before the Games. 


Just look at how positive the reporting of the North Korean all-female 'cheer squads' in the stands of PyeongChang stadia has been. Most coverage in the West has fallen into the 'light-hearted human interest' category, seeing them as odd yet cute and unique aspect of the Games rather than highlighting their propaganda purpose or what they convey about the regime that has sent them. 


Domestically the Games have been sold in North Korea as a concession to, rather than by, the People's Republic, and this had made a return to nuclear brinkmanship even more likely.


North Korea has thus gained political wriggle-room from the mood of peace and unity they were able to share with the South during the Games. And with the pressure for now off the North, PyeongChang 2018 will likely act in the medium- and long-term to widen not narrow the divide between the North and the South.


The conclusion of the Games will thus see a very rapid return to business as (ab)normal on the Korean Peninsula. Expect a rapid end to the 'United Korea' atmosphere of PyeongChang 2018. 


The South are likely to find a North even more determined to enforce their military and political objectives in the Games' aftermath. The 'Connected' aspirations, expressed in the PyeongChang Games motto, will I fear be very short-lived.