Nestled in the Taebeck Mountains in South Korea lies a town called Pyeongchang. It’s a ski resort, with the usual amenities. Other hills in the area have different amenities, like minefields and barbed-wire fences.
Pyeongchang is about 40 miles from the heavily militarized border with North Korea. Not far beyond that are several North Korean missile bases. The mines and fences are meant to deter a North Korean invasion.
In five months, Pyeongchang will host the Winter Olympics.
The timing couldn’t be better, could it? As South Korea prepares for a peaceful assembly of nations, tensions on the peninsula escalate with the endless exchange of schoolyard taunts between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, aka “Rocket Man” and “the mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said in August there was “no reason for any immediate concern” regarding safety at the Games. Then North Korea fired two missiles over Japan and conducted its sixth and most powerful nuclear test. Now it’s talking about another hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific Ocean. Last week, Bach met with South Korean president Moon Jae-in to discuss Bach’s “concerns.”
France was the first nation to say what others are thinking, that it would pull out if it could not guarantee the safety of its athletes. The United States Olympic Committee says it’s working on security for its delegation, as it does for every Olympics.
But when asked flatly whether Pyeongchang would be safe, North Korea’s IOC member, Chang Ung, responded, “Nobody knows.”
The IOC’s belief in sports as a force for good sometimes is justified, as when South Korea’s dictatorship abdicated and held democratic elections in response to international pressure before hosting the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. But politics, too, is part of the Games, most darkly in 1972, when pro-Palestinian commandos killed 11 Israeli team members in Munich.
Could such a thing happen in Pyeongchang?
You’d be correct to observe that we know a lot more about protecting events from terrorism than in 1972. And that pre-Olympic worries about terrorism are common but nothing happened in Rio de Janeiro, Sochi, London, etc.
But let’s walk back to Seoul for a minute. North Korea wanted to co-host in 1988, but negotiations broke down and North Korea boycotted the Games. Ten months before opening ceremonies, a bomb placed by North Korean agents on a Korean Air jetliner exploded in midair, killing all 115 people on board, an attack one of the agents said was meant to destabilize South Korea’s government and scare athletes and teams from coming to Seoul. The order, she said, came from Kim Jong Il — father of Kim Jong Un, Trump’s sparring partner.
Then there’s 2002, the last time South Korea held a major international sporting event — soccer’s World Cup, which it co-hosted with Japan. On the same day that South Korea played for third place, two boats from North Korea provoked a naval battle in disputed waters that killed six South Korean and 13 North Korean sailors.
This time around, North Korea responded to South Korea’s successful 2018 bid by building its own winter resort on its side of the border, as a potential Olympic co-hosting site. But South Korea did not bite, again freezing out the North. And now the North is led by a man South Korea says ordered the assassination of his own half-brother by two women using VX nerve agent in an airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Now athletes are getting nervous, and ticket sales are lagging, and Trump is locked and loaded, and Kim is threatening Guam, and Trump is ready to “totally destroy” North Korea, and Kim promises that Trump will “pay dearly.”
What could go wrong?
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.