Just when South Korea thought it was finally creating a buzz for February’s Winter Olympics, North Korea fired its most powerful missile yet and reignited safety worries about the small mountain town that will host the games not far from the rivals’ border.
The Pyeongchang Olympics probably aren’t in jeopardy because of Wednesday’s launch, for a number of reasons, including that the North is unlikely to attack the more powerful, U.S.-backed South. Despite its belligerent neighbor, South Korea is one of the safest places in the world, with a wealth of experience hosting international sporting events.
Still, the launch, which followed a 10-week lull, was a frustrating development for Pyeongchang’s organizers, who have only recently got on track after facing construction delays, controversies over cost overruns and wary sponsors. They can also do little to calm international fears created by North Korea’s accelerating nuclear weapons and missile tests.
Shortly after North Korea fired the Hwasong-15 into the sea Wednesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in convened a national security meeting where he ordered government officials to closely review whether the launch could hurt South Korea’s efforts to successfully host the Olympics, which begin February 9.
South Korea wants more than a million spectators for the Olympics, which will be held just 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the border, and expects 30 percent of them to be foreign visitors. Organizers have struggled for months to spark enthusiasm for the games locally, where the national conversation over the past year has been dominated by a massive corruption scandal that toppled and jailed the last president, as well as North Korea’s flurry of weapons tests.
Sung Baikyou, an official from Pyeongchang’s organizing committee, on Thursday downplayed worries that North Korea would scare away athletes and visitors to Pyeongchang. Organizers and government officials have held briefings and site inspections for Olympics officials, members and sponsors to reassure them of South Korea’s security readiness.
Largest winter field
The 92 nations that have so far registered to participate in the Pyeongchang Games represent the largest ever Winter Olympics field. And after a slow start, organizers had managed to sell more than half of the available tickets by the end of November.
Sung said there hadn’t been any talk with the International Olympic Committee about moving or canceling the games.
“It wouldn’t make sense for anyone to cancel tickets to Pyeongchang because of fears about North Korea,” Sung said. “There’s no war; bombs aren’t being dropped on Pyeongchang.”
Hyun Jae-gyung, an official from Gangwon province, which governs Pyeongchang and nearby Gangneung, a coastal city that will host the skating and hockey events during the Olympics, said cancellations at hotels and other accommodation facilities in the areas had been few and sporadic and unlikely linked to security concerns.
But there’s nothing organizers can do if North Korea raises fears even higher with more tests. North Korea has conducted 20 ballistic missile launches just this year, and the tests are becoming increasingly aggressive; some in the South fear that Washington might consider a pre-emptive strike on the North as the intercontinental ballistic missile tested Wednesday may be able to reach anywhere in the continental United States.
Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University and a security adviser to South Korea’s presidential office, thinks it’s highly unlikely that the North will do any significant weapons tests or other aggressive acts that would disrupt the Olympics.
After the Hwasong-15’s successful flight test, delighted North Korean leader Kim Jong Un declared that the country has “realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” Many experts, including Koh, believe that this suggests the country could soon consider its nuclear program as “enough” and shift the focus to its dismal economy.
It would do nothing for heavily sanctioned Pyongyang to worsen its awful reputation by creating trouble during the Olympics, Koh said. In recent government statements, including the one announced after Wednesday’s missile test, North Korea has repeatedly claimed itself as a “responsible” and “peace-loving” nation, something it has been emphasizing since the United States relisted the country as a state terror sponsor, Koh said.
“Even if they do conduct a missile or nuclear test during the Olympics, the games will go on, as tests don’t start wars. But I think there’s almost no possibility that they will,” said Koh. “If anything, they might have pushed hard to get their tests done before the start of the Olympics.”
It would help ease worries if North Korea participates in the Pyeongchang Games. While a North Korean figure skating pair qualified for the Olympics in September, it’s unclear whether the North will let them compete in the South.
North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, and has ignored the South’s proposals for dialogue in recent months.
Securing North Korea’s commitment to attend the Pyeongchang Games will be a critical topic at the IOC’s executive board meeting starting Monday in Lausanne, Switzerland, which will be the last one before the start of the Olympics.
The IOC has already offered to pay the costs should North Korea decide to participate, and Pyeongchang officials have been talking about granting special entries for North Korean athletes in some ice sports. Kim Kyung-hyup, a lawmaker for South Korea’s ruling party, said Thursday that Seoul should consider sending a special envoy to the North to try to persuade it to participate in the Pyeongchang Games.
Other than hoping that North Korea accepts the invitation, organizers are stuck.
“If there’s any other solution, tell me,” Sung said. “It’s not like we can jump up and catch North Korean missiles with a net.”