Earlier today at the Olympic opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the delegations from North and South Korea marched together under one Unification flag. The countries agreed to march to an old folk tune instead of any national anthem, and they’ll even compete on the same team in one event—women’s hockey, of all things. Earlier in the day Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, set foot in North Korea, the first member of the ruling family to do so since the 1950s, when Kim’s grandfather destroyed Seoul.
(The South Korean government, for its part, destroyed large parts of Pyeongchang in 2014—an impoverished mountain town—to prepare to host the Olympics there.)
Exactly zero Olympics have been empty of politics, but this year’s winter games might be one of the more significant political moments not just in Olympic history, but in recent history. They’re both a tool and symbol, and—thanks to an unexpected, last-minute diplomatic overture from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un—these games will neatly capture in one event one of the most complex, dangerous, and inscrutable geopolitical conflicts in the world: the Korean War.
The significance or authenticity of Kim’s gesture is obviously far from certain. The conflict in Korea—the two countries are still technically at war; despite the common misconception, the U.S. is not at war with the North—is one of the most passive-aggressive wars of all time. The countries literally don’t talk to each other, for one thing. Many gestures mean their opposite, some are only efforts to poke the bear to get a reaction, and a lot of stuff means nothing at all. But some of the gestures are genuine and meaningful. Nuclear tests, for one. The problem, of course, is the boy who cried wolf.
Depending on your level of political cynicism, you probably think this is either propaganda or pretty pimpin’. I’m hyper-cynical and think it’s both, but that’s because the Olympics themselves are both. The Trump administration has made its position clear, though, dismissing the gesture as pure propaganda.
But that’s because North Korea snubbed us. Though we might take home the most gold medals, we also might have quietly lost the Korean War.
What’s the Big Deal?
If you believe the Olympics should be about the purity of sport and object that they’ve been hijacked by political manipulators, remember that the Olympics—and sports generally—are never pure and have always been political. Sometimes cynical politicians and even terrorists have wielded the games as a tool, and sometimes the games themselves have through no political manipulation symbolized or expressed major political events. Think of Hitler using the 1938 games to showcase German superiority, only to be humiliated by Jesse Owens; or remember the 1972 Palestinian terrorist bombing in Munich, memorialized recently in the eponymous movie; or recall the Cold War boycotts led alternately by the U.S. and our newfound pals the U.S.S.R.
In short, the grandeur and scope of the Olympics amplify even the smallest of political symbols, and inversely, politicians exploit that grandeur and scope to amplify their agendas. And it’s not just geopolitical maneuvering, either; the implicit nationalism offers an opportunity to pump out domestic propaganda. For instance, this week, Mike Pence—whom we sent to represent us at the games instead of Donald Trump—told one of the ugliest and most cynical lies of his life when he asserted his support for gay American Olympians, whom he has publicly advocated should undergo conversion therapy. Mike Pence is a real piece of shit, but my point beyond that is the Olympics are larger than life, and politicians can’t avoid them.
Except, again, for Donald Trump, who despite the South Korean government’s official invitation in October, is indeed avoiding the Olympics. He’s the first sitting President to do so in years. Kim Jong-un reciprocated the snub.
Our highest-profile Olympic representatives aren’t the athletes. They’re our leaders. The fact that Trump, along with other Presidents before him, refused to attend shows he cares more about political posturing than our squad.
But what distinguishes Trump’s snub from earlier ones is the fact that these games are being hosted not by a rival, but a longtime ally to whom we’ve pledged our presence in order to secure peace. Trump isn’t boycotting North Korea, he’s boycotting their presence at the games. And who is responsible for North Korea’s presence at the games? Not North Korea: South Korea.
So let’s take this as the conscious gesture it is, in the context of the global stage: Trump dismissed the wishes of his ally in order to boycott his enemy. Look, South Korea and North Korea are perhaps working towards peace, and though there’s a good chance Kim’s gesture will turn out to be hollow, South Korea is at least open to the possibility.
We can sum it up simply: As South Korea begins diplomatic negotiations with North Korea, Trump begins to talk about taking military action against North Korea.
So that’s the big deal of KJU’s Olympic political overture: He showed the world that the United States is no longer interested in our ally’s interest. What’s going on here?
Competition and Conflict
What’s going on is that these are all signs of America’s increasingly weak hand in the Korean conflict. American leadership will say publicly that we won’t tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea, but the reality is that we’re tolerating a nuclear-armed North Korea right now and likely have been for several years. We know they’ve got nukes, but we don’t know how many they have or where they are, or if they’re capable of striking the United States.
We also say we want talks. Well, North Korea has used the Olympics to open a diplomatic channel with South Korea. It’s the first time the two countries have had direct bilateral talks in years. But do we support this? No. We dismiss it and call it propaganda, an implicit criticism of what we see as South Korea’s naïveté.
So why do we say we want talks, but then dismiss talks as useless? Because we’re not involved here. Kim Jong-un made his overture only to South Korea. In the same speech he famously threatened the United States—and only the United States—with his nuclear button.
We’re being pushed off the table here. Trump is a juvenile dipshit who unsurprisingly failed to understand that North Korea wields a bigger weapon than we do: They wield peace. If they want the war to be over, they don’t have to nuke anyone or sacrifice any of their population. They can just say, “Let’s squash it.” We can’t. In fact we’ve been struggling, and failing, to get them to that point. Trump has hyped himself to the point of considering military action, a desperate move. Whose hand is stronger?
The future as I see it is a slow, skeptical, but steady detente between the two Koreas. Kim Jong-un isn’t suicidal and does not want a war. He won’t start one. If we attack North Korea, though, his calculation is different.
The best way for KJU to escape suicide, assassination, and war, as well as to bend interests in the region slightly more to his nation’s favor, is to wage peace. However, if tensions ease on the peninsula and the U.S. doesn’t open up to North Korea to the same degree as the other countries in the region—who have a much more immediate and relevant interest—things won’t look good for us. Soon we might be at odds with the wishes of South Korea, as well as the wishes of Japan, China, and Russia, who also have major interests in peace. Trump, it seems, is unlikely to be open to talks lacking substantial concessions from North Korea, hence his divergence here.
This opens up a the head seat at the negotiating table. Enter China.
In the end, we have to recognize the conflict has fundamentally changed. Kim Jong-un understands the power of peace, and the Olympics—a venue for international competition, not international conflict—is a perfect political symbol. Could he be bluffing? Sure, but to what end? Getting sanctions lifted, maybe. But if he doesn’t hold up his end, those sanctions will come right back down on him. He has incentive to hold to his word. He’ll eventually get killed in a coup if things keep getting worse. My bet is he secures negotiations in a slow process toward peace, and his ally China will mediate them. And if China can denuclearize North Korea, they push us out of the region, and we’ve lost the war. And we lost the Olympics.