A United Korea

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of JLIA, Penn State Law, School of International Affairs, or Pennsylvania State University.

As the Winter Olympics began in early February in PyeongChang, North and South Korea put out a united front. From the opening ceremony, to the Women’s Ice Hockey team, to the infamous cheerleaders, North Korea has made a presence in PyeongChang so far. Although this may seem like a symbol of peace, a value that the Olympic Games have always stood for, it begs the question of what is actually going on between North and South Korea.


While recent Olympic Games have sought to set politics aside, the strategic subtext of the Korean unity has been unavoidable.[1] The media has been incessant ever since North Korea agreed to send 22 athletes, along with a slew of artistic performers and dignitaries to PyeongChang.[2] The controversies over whether North Korea’s participation in the Games would violate international sanctions punishing North Korea for its nuclear weapon development could not be abetted, even by the arrival or North Korean cheerleaders donning matching red uniforms.


There is still a divide between the North and the South, as the troupe from the North remains separated from the rest of the athletes participating in the Games. While the other world athletes get to stay in the Olympic Village, those from North Korea are designated to remain on board the ferry Mangyongbong-92.[3] This is the first time since 2010 that South Korea has allowed a ship from the North to enter into its waters.[4] Although some might see it as a step towards unity, it seems to be a step in the wrong direction.


North Korea has spent the last year test-firing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons in violation of United Nations resolutions and international law.[5]  Yet, during the opening ceremony, the North Korean Olympic team was soaking up the spotlight. This is not the first time that the North and South have put on a united front at during international athletic competitions.[6] It is actually the ninth time that North Korea and South Korea have marched in unison since the first time during the 2000 Olympics.[7] However, it makes you wonder if North Korea’s latest olive branch is a more of a Trojan horse.


It is skeptical that North Korea’s actions in attending the Games are any indication of the country’s future good will. It seems almost too good to be true that North Korea’s participation in the Olympics would lead to any type of long-term improvements in the behavior or the cooperation between the North and the South.  North Korea’s ultimate goal may actually be to poke holes in the United States’ alliance with South Korea or to weaken international support for severe sanctions over its use of nuclear weapons.[8] Still, whether it was intended or not, North Korea has shifted the focus from the success of the athletes to its political stunt.


Opinions on the unified front are split amongst South Koreans. While some believe that it is a step towards peace, other feel that it has unfairly shifted the emphasis away from the success of the South Korean athletes, as well as the other athletes from around the world.[9]  The South Korean women’s ice hockey team has been forced to accept players from North Korea without ample notice or the ability to bond as a team.[10] While some might see the joint ice hockey team as a symbol of unity and peace, it seems inherently unfair that some of the women who have worked so hard to get to the Olympics now have to sit and watch players from the North usurp their spots.[11]


Regardless of the goals that North Korea had in mind when it agreed to participate in the Winter Olympic Games, it surely has gained lots of publicity. North Korea’s participation also has potentially opened the doors of communication between South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, and North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. Moon Jae-in has received a formal invitation from Kim Jong Un to travel across the border for a meeting, which, if it occurs, will be the first meeting between Korean leaders since 2007. [12]


About the Author: Olivia Levine is a 2L at Penn State Law.


[1] Rich, Motoko. “Olympics Open With Koreas Marching Together, Offering Hope for Peace.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/world/asia/olympics-opening-ceremony-north-korea.html

[2] Id.

[3] Sang-hun, Choe. “North Korean Troupe Is Cleared to Enter South’s Waters Before Games.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/05/world/asia/north-korea-ferry-troupe-olympics.html.

[4] Id.

[5] Friedman, Uri. “North Korea’s Undeserved Olympic Glory.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 9 Feb. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/02/olympics-opening-ceremony/552722/.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Rich, Motoko. “Olympics Open With Koreas Marching Together, Offering Hope for Peace.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 9 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/world/asia/olympics-opening-ceremony-north-korea.html.

[10] Haas, Benjamin. “Korea’s United Olympic Squad: Symbol of Hope or Mere Political Stunt?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 Feb. 2018, www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/feb/10/korea-united-olympic-squad-hockey-game-highlights-deep-divisions

[11] Lewis, Aimee. “Unified Korean Ice Hockey Team Proves That ‘Winning Isn’t Everything’.” CNN, Cable News Network, 12 Feb. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/02/10/sport/south-and-north-korea-ice-hockey-intl/index.html.

[12] Id.

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