Is N.Korea Playing Games with Winter Olympics?

  • By Lee Yong-soo, Ahn Jun-yong, Lee Tae-dong

    January 31, 2018 12:48

    There is growing concern that North Korea is playing games with South Korea over its participation in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, apparently under the impression that the South Korean government desperately needs the publicity coup.

    Kim Jae-chun at Sogang University said, "North Korea thinks it's doing us a big favor by sending athletes to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and thinks the government is indebted by the gesture."

    In a telegram Monday night, North Korea said that it had "no choice but to cancel" a joint cultural performance at its Mt. Kumgang resort since the South Korean media "continues to propagate popular opinion that insults the sincere measures we are undertaking in relation to the Pyeongchang Olympics."

    The South Korean press has been largely hostile to measures taken to accommodate the North and has denounced a massive military parade in Pyongyang on the eve of the Olympics.

    But one former Unification Ministry official said, "Even North Korea knows that the government can't control what the media reports. It's just trying to bully us by making unreasonable demands."

    But earlier, a high-ranking Unification Ministry official had already asked the press to refrain from publishing "speculative and critical articles." That meant the go-ahead for a planned visit by Hyon Song-wol, a high-profile bandleader-cum-apparatchik who was to inspect concert venues here for her Samjiyon Orchestra.

    "North Korea probably realized that its pressure tactics are working," a researcher with a state-run think tank said. "North Korea could well overturn other agreements unless the government here acts deferentially." 

    Culture Minister Do Jong-whan, Interior and Safety Minister Kim Boo-kyum and Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon (from left) leave a meeting at the government complex in Seoul on Tuesday. /Yonhap

    But others believe North Korea canceled the scheduled performance in Mt. Kumgang because it stands to make no money from it due to international sanctions.

    Former senior presidential secretary Chun Young-woo said, "One of North Korea's aims is to weaken some of the impact of international sanctions. It may have realized that going through with the performance in Mt. Kumgang won't ease sanctions and is fraught with headaches."

    There were concerns that 10,000 liters of diesel the government intended to send to North Korea for power generation at Mt. Kumgang would eat into the North's annual import allowance under UN Security Council sanctions.

    One intelligence source said, "North Korea agreed to host the performance in Mt. Kumgang because it wanted to resume package tours to the resort, but it realized that wouldn't be possible."

    Other pundits said North Korea simply could not afford to host another event as it plans the massive military parade in Pyongyang and cross-border ski training at the Masikryong Ski Resort.

    North Korea also seems to have been surprised how hostile South Koreans are to the idea of joint events. Kim Keun-sik at Kyungnam University said, "North Korea thought South Koreans would respond positively, like they did under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, and may have been taken aback by the hostility here."

    Indeed, the Moon Jae-in administration's attempts to accommodate the North have proved the opposite of a publicity coup and sent its support ratings plummeting, so the surprise seems to have been shared by both governments.

    That means Pyongyang has a lot less leverage over Seoul. Park Byung-kwang at the Institute for National Security Strategy said the aim of the abrupt cancellation late at night "is to maximize the shock effect by catching us off guard at an unexpected hour."

    But in this murky soup of speculation, others have simply blamed North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's nocturnal habits.

    The next question was whether planned joint training of up-and-coming skiers at the Masikryong Ski Resort would still go ahead, but the North made no more trouble and the young athletes took off on Wednesday morning as planned.

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