When the Flame Goes Out: What Next for the Korean Peninsula?


Before the start of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the chance of a meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was as likely as the German men´s ice hockey team reaching the tournament final. Now, after a games which featured a joint Korean team and a thawing of tensions, it’s possible that such a meeting will take place, perhaps as early as next month. How events unfold will also go a long way to determining whether Pyongyang’s recent display of sport diplomacy will result in a new level of dialogue and understanding regarding the Korean Peninsula.

Hidden Costs (and Benefits)

Organising an Olympic Games poses a great financial burden on the host country. Venues need to be built, infrastructure needs to be modified, and much more besides. South Korea invested approximately $13 billion into hosting this year´s Winter Olympics, three times less than Sochi . Indeed, Russia’s decision to ‘spend big’ for Sochi and this year’s FIFA World Cup is less about improving stadia and logistics and more to do with Moscow’s efforts to use the biggest sports events as a source of national pride.

Irrespective of the exact amount spent, hosting an Olympic Games often has a knock-on effect for a country’s economy for several decades. It took Montreal 30 years to regain financial stability after it hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics. Norway withdrew its bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Oslo, citing prohibitive costs. Tellingly, these Games will now take place in Beijing, meaning that the Olympics will remain in Asia after PyeongChang 2018 and Tokyo 2020.

For its part, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) often tries to offset the financial challenges of hosting the Games by supporting bids by cities which have previous experience of organising major sporting events. This played a crucial role when choosing Paris for the 2024 Summer Olympics and Los Angeles four years later. Both cities also presented promising and sustainable plans for using venues and infrastructure after the Games, the so-called Olympic legacy.

South Korea undoubtedly used PyeongChang 2018 and its ability to deliver value for money sporting events to improve its wider security apparatus. In addition to the deployment of 50,000 military personnel – more than double the amount for Rio 2016 – organisers built several thousand hidden underground shelters, installed 800 security cameras and used anti-drone technology and explosive-detecting robots. South Korea’s police and intelligence agencies also coordinated with counterparts around the world to mitigate against terrorist attacks and other threats.

Apart from a high profile cyber-attack, Pyeongchang delivered one of the most secure Olympic games ever. In doing so, Seoul also acquired sophisticated technology and know-how that can be used to counter South Korea’s greatest security challenge – its belligerent neighbour to the north. Another interesting feature of Pyeongchang’s Olympic legacy is that it trained a significant number of troops to tackle the type of asymmetric security threat that Pyeongyang might launch in the build-up to all-out conflict with the South.  On a more positive note, South Korea’s ability to deliver cost-effective games also safeguarded efforts to engage in economic diplomacy with Pyongyang. Seoul just might need all the money it can in the years ahead.

Games Without Frontiers?

The site of North and South Korean participants marching together under the Korean Unification Flag at the opening ceremony will undoubtedly go down as an iconic moment in Olympic history. The same might also be said of the North Korean delegation joining their counterparts in matching uniforms. North Korea’s ‘face’ of the Winter Olympics was Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un´s sister and one of the most powerful persons of the regime. She personally delivered an invitation to South Korea’s Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang and meet her brother.

The South Korean President undoubtedly pinned a lot of hope on PyeongChang 2018 easing tensions on the Peninsula, even going as far as branding the Games the "Peace Olympics". It’s a vision that many ordinary South Koreans have also signed up to. The results of a survey conducted by the Korea Society Opinion Institute show that 65% of participants believe that the years´ Olympics will have a positive effect on inter-Korean relations.

Yet, not everyone was as enthusiastic about North Korea’s sport diplomacy as the South. Less than a month before the Olympics, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono warned that Pyongyang was merely buying time to advance its nuclear weapons programme. The United States was equally skeptical that North Korea had embarked nothing more than a charm offensive, a view which survived the sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the arrival of his proposed replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo. It remains to be seen how Washington’s hardline will influence possible US-North Korean dialogue and Seoul’s currently more peaceful and proactive approach to reconciliation.

And let’s not forget about China, Pyongyang’s closest political and economic ‘friend’. Beijing had very little to say about Pyongyang’s diplomatic offensive and a unified Korean team by PyeongChang 2018. However, the country surprised the wider international community at the end of March, when Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted Kim Jong Un in Beijing, the North Korean leader’s first known foreign trip since assuming power in 2011.

The meeting reflected that China’s attitude towards its northeastern neighbour is more complex than it first seems. In keeping with Japan, the United States and others, Beijing wants a peaceful prosperous and stable Korean Peninsula. But not at any cost. Experts regularly highlight that a unified Korea would bring US influence right up to the border with China. It’s a scenario that Beijing would refuse to countenance, most probably resulting in a dramatic shift in China’s geopolitical calculations.

A (Familiar) Word of Caution

It should also never be forgotten that Kim Jong Un and his predecessors share a common family trait – unpredictability. Such erratic behaviour merely underlines the North Korean leader’s determination to preserve his regime at all cost. To this end, Pyongyang’s five decades old pursuit of nuclear weapons is now a well-established pillar of North Korea’s identity. Persuading Kim to relinquish his nuclear ambition will be a challenge, to say the least. However, maybe it is not too daring to be cautiously optimistic about the future of inter-Korean relations now that the Olympic flame has gone out.

Given that the situation on the Korean Peninsula has implications for politics, economics and security beyond the immediate neighbourhood, it will be discussed in depth at this year’s GLOBSEC 2018 Bratislava Forum.