On the one hand: The world gathers for a scripted, globalized spectacle of competition and unity. North Korean athletes and performers stream into the rival South for a display of cooperation that maybe, just maybe, could ease anxiety about possible nuclear war. The North’s head of state announces plans to visit the South for the first time. The U.S. vice president is stopping by, too.
On the other: Angry South Koreans bump up against riot police to protest the arrivals. The North’s government immediately calls the demonstration a “spasm of psychopaths.” The president of the United States insists that America must become “great again” — and goads the North Korean leader on Twitter.
And outward from there it ripples, across a planet riven by uncertainty and anger.
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That the world is a contradictory and quarrelsome place is hardly breaking news. But on the week that the 2018 Winter Olympics begin, tucked away in chilly mountains that loom over one of the planet’s most contentious patches of earth, it somehow seems more so at this moment.
When the torch is lit during the opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang’s Olympic stadium on Friday night, it will become one of many flames being fanned around the world. Few others are anywhere near as uplifting.
“It’s hard to talk about these Olympics without bearing in mind that for all the wonderful ideals that are brought to mind by the Olympic Games, and rightfully so, right now the Korean Peninsula is the most dangerous place on Earth,” says Mark Hertsgaard, author of “The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World.”
As its organizers often say, an Olympics are an opportunity to sublimate politics into healthy competition and show that the world can come together for a noble purpose: an excellence of body and mind produced by hard work and sheer determination.
And yes, that’s happening in Pyeongchang even before the Games begin, most dramatically with the joint Korean women’s hockey team, which will feature players from the long-divided North and South skating and competing together on the same ice.
But bypassing political bumpiness entirely is a challenge when the other main point of the Olympics — national pride, as seen through the prism of sports — can come with some serious geopolitical baggage.
This is also the first Games to take place since Donald Trump became president of the United States in early 2017. And whether you love him or hate him, it’s clear that he has changed the global conversation through his willingness to be voluble in ways previous presidents have avoided.
One of Trump’s hallmarks has been his attitude of America first. That has always played to a mixed audience at the Olympics, and this edition will be no exception. For all its country-specific fervor, the Olympics is a proudly multilateral event taking place this year in a world that, from Brexit to Trump policies, is awash in a burst of unilateralism.
How those two notions mix — particularly with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korea’s figurehead head of state, Kim Yong Nam, both planning to visit Pyeongchang with clear political agendas — will prove interesting.
There is also the specter of non-athletic scandal around the edges.
—The Russian team is banned because of doping issues; Russian athletes, however, are competing — but without their flag to wrap themselves in.
—U.S. Gymnastics, a staple of the Summer Games, is reeling after its team doctor was convicted of sexually assaulting dozens of athletes.
—Even the fall of TV personality Matt Lauer, a fixture of past Olympic coverage for American viewers, was linked to sexual misconduct at the Sochi Games.
But geopolitics hang heaviest.
This corner of the world is filled with countries whose histories run deep with unique, often tense relationships with each other and with the United States. That’s true not only of the two Koreas but of neighbors Japan and China, the locations of the 2020 and 2022 Games respectively. With that trifecta in mind, it’s hard to imagine that regional relationships won’t affect the tenor of not only these Olympics but the next two as well.
That’s on display this week. Pence is coming to Pyeongchang as a kind of bulwark against too much good feeling about Korean cooperation. “We’ll be ensuring that whatever cooperation that’s existing between North and South Korea today on Olympic teams does not cloud the reality of a regime that must continue to be isolated by the world community,” he said Monday.
Not to be outdone, the North’s official news agency is weighing in regularly as the opening of the Games approaches. “The U.S. has revealed its intention to make the Winter Olympics a theatre for stand-off with the DPRK,” it said, using the initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North’s official name.
Against this backdrop, it will be interesting to watch the opening ceremony, typically a moment for a country to showcase vivid imagery about its own history. What space, if any, will that performance give to North Korea and the conflict that divided the peninsula seven decades ago?
“There is a way in which countries use especially the opening ceremony to talk about their narrative, their myth, their origin,” says Sarah Mendelson, head of Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College’s program in Washington and the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how they deal with this — with the Korean War,” she says. “How do you not talk about the seminal event?”
On the ground in Pyeongchang, optimism presents itself in remarks like this one a few days ago, from athletes’ village volunteer Go Do Hyoung, a South Korean faced with the possibility of meeting people from the North:
“I just want to say to them, ‘How are you? Nice to meet you. Welcome to South Korea.’ And just take one picture, something like that. We South Korean people don’t have much chance to talk with North Korean(s). So I just want to know who they are and what they want to know about. Just know them in person.”
Ultimately, that’s where a lot of human diplomacy takes place: at ground level, among amateurs. You just have to create the conditions for it. The Olympics does that — puts people of many stripes together in an arena where, unlike the thunderdome of actual politics, winning doesn’t have to mean making sure that the other party is told aggressively that they’ve just lost.
“We get to see, in the Olympics, where clash doesn’t have to be destructive. This kind of clash shows us what we can be capable of,” says Meg Mott, a political scientist at Marlboro College in Vermont. “It can show us how to have winners and losers and not destroy each other.”
At a moment in history when enmities are high and hints of war are in the air, that’s a notable message — especially when coming from a bunch of highly skilled athletes gathered in the mountains to show what humanity’s excellence can really mean.