Will North Korea Be In The Olympics

The 2020 Olympics, to be hosted in Japan, has led to the spotlight being put on North Korea and its participation in the prestigious event. The question on everybody’s mind is, will North Korea be in the Olympics? This article will explore the various angles to this question, looking at the history between North Korea and the Olympics, background information as well as perspectives from experts.

North Korea and the Olympics have a turbulent past. The nation first participated in the Olympics in 1972, at the Summer Games in Munich, West Germany. North Korea dispatched 29 athletes and four officials to the games, and participated in gymnastics and weightlifting. They won the weightlifting championship for the first time, having not participated in the games in Mexico City four years prior. Nevertheless, from then up until 1988, North Korea stayed away from the Olympic games. North Korea joined the Olympics again in 1992, but its participation has since been sporadic at best.

The far more significant question regarding North Korea’s participation in the 2020 Olympics is largely political. Both China and South Korea have expressed the desire for North Korea to participate. “Beijing has frequently encouraged a ‘peaceful resolution’ and ‘dialogue’ to resolve the nuclear issue, suggesting that a gesture of reconciliation towards the North could come in the form of further participation in the 2020 Olympics.” South Korean President Moon Jae-in has depicted the Olympics as being a symbol of peace between South Korea and North Korea, saying that he wants the two countries to march in the same procession at the opening ceremony.

However, the tension between North Korea and the United States regarding the former’s nuclear ambitions appears to be the main drawback for North Korea’s participation in the 2020 Olympics. North Korea has made their own demands in exchange for participating in the games. One of these demands is the easing of international sanctions, and with the United States likely to veto any such move, the chances of North Korea participating in the 2020 Olympics seem low.

The opinions of experts vary due to the ambiguous nature of the situation. According to David Shinn, a former ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, it is unlikely that North Korea will participate in the 2020 Olympics, citing the “hostile stance” of the United States as the main reason. Similarly, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, believes that these talks “will not lead to a breakthrough needed” for North Korea’s participation. He explains that Pyongyang desires a “bold concession by Washington”, which is something which doesn’t appear forthcoming in these early stages.

However, in emphasizing the complexity of the situation, Mikko Hirvonen, a Research Fellow at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs, claims that North Korea’s participation in the 2020 Olympics “can still happen”. He believes that North Korea’s willingness to “play the waiting game” allows them the opportunity to “push for sanctions relief and be willing to give up only a limited amount of nuclear capability and ICBM programs.”

North Korea and Human Rights

The presence of North Korea in the Olympics will also have potential impacts on human rights. Despite the rhetoric of peace, Pyongyang’s track record on human rights has been explored extensively by the United Nations. Last month, a UN Commission of Inquiry found that North Korea’s actions had been carried out “with a goal of instilling fear and systematic and widespread repression of its citizens” depicting a country which systematically eliminates freedom of thought, expression and religion. Furthermore, research by the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) has shown that 3.49 million citizens were arrested or sentenced to hard labor without due process.

The issue of how North Korea is viewed globally can also arise from the country’s presence in the 2020 Olympics. Although the Olympic Games pay tremendous respect to cultural beliefs and backgrounds, there have been instances in the past where political ideologies have been prioritized over sportsmanship. One example of this would be during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, when Saudi Arabia did not send female athletes to the games to represent their nation, leading to the country being criticized by the UN. Therefore, there is a possibility that North Korea might face the same kind of pressure if they send athletes.

The issue of North Korean athletes possibly being sought out by a foreign nation is a real possibility. South Korean media has highlighted numerous cases of North Korean refugees seeking asylum in a foreign nation. Moreover, with the number of North Korean refugees growing every year, the possibility of North Korean athletes fleeing only increases, since refugees are often offered generous sums of money as well as housing by foreign governments as a means to keep them from returning to their homeland. North Korea has responded to this situation by creating a “safe and secure environment” for athletes against defectors, however it remains to be seen if the athletes feel secure enough to take part in the Olympics.

A Wider Perspective

The issues of North Korea’s participation in the 2020 Olympics and the wider implications on a global scale are complex and controversial. Experts remain split on the issue. The UN’s committee on human rights and the precariousness of North Korean athletes also add to the discussion in a meaningful way. Beyond the individual countries involved and commentary from experts, the world will be watching how the situation develops.

A major factor that will affect North Korea’s decision to participate in the 2020 Olympics is whether South Korea will remain in lockstep with Tokyo at the International Olympics Committee (IOC). It has been suggested that Japan’s stance on North Korea’s participation in the Olympics has been unyielding and determined, especially in the wake of the 2017 missile launches by North Korea. South Korea on the other hand, have been more conciliatory and willing to compromise with Pyongyang, in the hopes of avoiding war. For North Korea to participate in the Olympics it seems that the two countries will have to reconcile their differences and work together.

The Tokyo Olympics of 2020 could prove to be a watershed moment for North Korea. Though the nation has actively tried to keep its citizens out of the Olympic platform, it also has had a long “on again, off again” involvement in the decorated games. It remains to be seen whether a new “era of peace and prosperity” will be ushered in, or if the issue remains as contentious as it has been.

What Could A North Korean Presence Bring?

The involvement of North Korea in the 2020 Olympics could bring a whole range of changes to both the sporting world and the diplomatic environment. The participation of North Korean athletes, both in the Olympics in 2020, and in international sporting events in general, could be a mark of progress for the nation. Seoul-based independent research group The Asan Institute for Policy Studies said “if North Korea participates in the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics and gain public recognition, North Korea might… use the international recognition as a breakthrough for its own citizens.”

A North Korean presence in the 2020 Olympics could also lead to an improved relationship with the United States and a greater welcoming from the rest of the world. Improved relations could open up opportunities for the citizens of North Korea beyond sports; possibilities such as studying abroad and the loosening of international sanctions which prohibit trade and investment between North Korea and the rest of the world.

On the other hand, some argue that North Korea’s participation in the 2020 Olympics could be a double-edged sword. According to Dave Kay, a former military intelligence analyst at the British Ministry of Defence and currently a senior advisor at the International Institute for Strategic Studies , “North Korean athletes competing in the Olympics is a two-edged sword… It may well be that if the North Koreans compete in Tokyo, the authorities in Pyongyang will see it as a positive way to generate positive publicity and to deflect some of the more serious criticisms about their government’s behavior.”

The International Political Angle

The political situation is often difficult to predict in East Asia, and that is likely to be the case with North Korea’s participation in the 2020 Olympics. China has held a benign attitude towards North Korea’s involvement in the Olympics, but has not pushed for any kind of diplomatic resolution between the US and North Korea. However, China has at least repeatedly expressed the sentiment that its neighbor is willing to discuss the nuclear crisis and other issues.

On the other hand, Japan has taken a much more hard-line stance towards North Korea’s involvement in the Olympics. Shinzo Abe’s conservative government has taken the view that the nation will not make any concessions to a country they perceive as being a threat. Japan’s strict policy even extends beyond the Olympics, with a string of tough sanctions on North Korea reaching as far back as 2013.

The United States has also declared a strict stance on the matter. President Donald Trump is willing only to wait and see if North Korea participates before making any moves to lift sanctions or encourage economic interaction. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed Trump’s view, saying: ‘at this point the United States government has a set of expectations that are well understood by the North Korean government of what they need to do to participate in the games.”

What Now?

The situation surrounding North Korea’s potential participation in the 2020 Olympics is shrouded in mystery. Contradictory messages coming out of South Korea, Japan and the United States have made it difficult to ascertain which direction the debate will swing.

North Korea’s success in the 1972 Munich Olympics has since been the only memorable triumph for the nation. Will the citizens have their moment in the sun once more, or will it remain another chapter in the nation’s intricate history? The world will continue to speculate and observe the situation, which has the potential to change the face of East Asian diplomacy for years to come.

Cassie Grissom is an American journalist and author living in Seoul, South Korea. She has been studying the Korean peninsula since 2011, and her work focuses on understanding human rights issues in North Korea. In addition to her work as an author, Cassie is an active advocate for human rights in North Korea. She regularly shares stories about life in North Korea with international audiences to raise awareness of the plight of its citizens.

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