On Olympics: North Korea Makes Peace With the Olympics

The Olympic ideal has long been tarnished by scandal and prohibitive costs that make the Games unaffordable to many cities. But the I.O.C., since its founding in the 19th century, has prided itself on the Olympics serving as essentially a peace movement. They are meant to show that the world’s nations and athletes can come together and, if only for a brief period, the chance of conflict can be lessened.

For those who still subscribe to that ideal, hopes soared Tuesday. “This is going to put a positive vibe into those Games,” Mr. Marcotte said.

There is, too, a widely-expressed hope among South Korean officials and international sports officials and athletes that North Korea’s unpredictable leader, Kim Jong-un, will be less likely to behave provocatively during the Olympics if his country’s athletes are participating.

On Olympics: North Korea Makes Peace With the Olympics
On Olympics: North Korea Makes Peace With the Olympics

Last week, the North Korean ruler boasted that the United States was within range of a nuclear arsenal he could operate with a button on his desk. President Donald J. Trump responded on Twitter by bragging about the nuclear capabilities of the United States and the size of his button.

The jousting evoked somber Olympic memories from three decades ago. Ten months before the 1988 Summer Games were held in Seoul, the South Korean capital, North Korean agents placed a bomb aboard a Korean Air flight and killed all 115 aboard in what South Korean officials said was an attempt to undermine those Olympics. North Korea boycotted those Games.

At the last major international sporting event held in South Korea, soccer’s 2002 World Cup, North Korea provoked a naval skirmish with the South on the day that South Korea played a match for third place.

But, on various fields of play, the two countries have been on convivial terms lately. Last year, North Korea sent its women’s national hockey team to play in South Korea, and South Korea sent its women’s soccer team to play in North Korea. North Korea also sent a taekwondo team to the South.

The two nations marched together in the opening ceremony at the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics. South Korean officials have held open that possibility for the Winter Games.

South Korean officials have also strenuously sought to play down security concerns ahead of the 2018 Games, which will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, only about 40 miles from the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South.

“These worries are understandable,” Choi Moon-soon, governor of the South Korean province where the Olympics will take place, told reporters last year. But, referring to North Korea, he added, “If they participate in the event, that threat disappears.”


The North Korean pairs figure skating team of Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik relax and celebrate at the kiss and cry zone in Eissportzentrum, Oberstdorf last September.Credit Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

It is not known whether Kim Jong-un had any plans to disrupt the Pyeongchang Games, but Olympic insiders have said the presence of North Korean athletes would allow them to rest more easily.

Last week, at the United States figure skating championships, David Raith, executive director of U.S. Figure Skating, said he welcomed North Korea’s presence at the Olympics.

“We’re hoping they’re there,” Mr. Raith said. “It would be the safest place in the world.”

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North Korea missed a deadline in late October to officially enter its pairs team into the Olympics. And it does not yet appear to have made such a request, Alexander Lakernik, a Russian who is vice president of the International Skating Union, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday.

But adding the North Koreans to the Olympic pairs competition would be a simple procedure. And the I.O.C. has said it would keep the doors open to North Korea’s participation for as long as possible. The Olympic committee has also broached the idea of offering North Korea wild-card entries in some Nordic skiing sports and short-track speedskating.

Discussions have been underway about the pairs team, Mr. Lakernik said, and given the special circumstances, “there could be an exception made; but first we need an application.”

While North Korea has won 16 gold medals in the Summer Games, in such sports as weight lifting, wrestling and boxing, it is not a power in the more expensive winter sports. North Korea did not participate in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Its officials have recently complained that tightened sanctions against the country have made it difficult to obtain some sports equipment.

In general, North Korea has not appeared to follow the model of the former Soviet Union and East Germany, which were both winter sports powers and used gold medals for propaganda purposes. But experts see participation in these Games as an attempt by Mr. Kim to get sanctions eased and to reduce the chances of American military action.

“Sports diplomacy is a sexy affair,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a Korea expert at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “Pyongyang has all the reason to jazz up the Winter Olympiad and be the center of attention.”

Purely in skating terms, Mr. Marcotte, the coach said, the North Koreans appear to be mirroring the Chinese model of attempting to build pairs teams to an elite international level.

At the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, Chinese pairs won two of the three available medals and are among the favorites to win gold at the 2018 Games. Ryom and Kim possess some of the dynamism seen in Chinese pairs and also some of the classic, balletic style of Russian skaters. There is Western influence in their routines as well. They perform their short program to an instrumental version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

While qualifying for the 2018 Games at a competition in Germany in September, the skaters spoke several times with reporters and seemed relatively open. Both Ryom and Kim are listed as students. Both live in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, where loyalists to the Kim Jong-un regime are permitted to reside.

“I want to continue to improve until I become world champion,” Ryom said at the time.

One subject was off limits: the Olympics, because no decision had yet been made about North Korea’s participation.

And there seemed to be every attempt to avoid politics.

Neither skater, for instance, wore pins commonly worn by North Koreans that depict Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and father, who preceded him as the country’s dynastic rulers. And both skaters neglected to praise Kim Jong-un for their success, another common practice for North Korean athletes.

Mr. Marcotte, the coach, said that all his interactions with the skaters had been about “sports, sports, sports.”

And while their performance at the Olympics would carry broader meaning for many, he said, the skaters would most likely feel only the pressure that every skater feels — to perform at their best.

“They want to show the world that they’re a good team,” Mr. Marcotte said.

Choe Sang-Hun contributed reporting from Seoul, South Korea

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