The Winter Olympics are a time for athletes from around the world to show off their athletic prowess. They might also be a time for North Korea to demonstrate the strength and dexterity of its rapidly advancing weapons.
It’s become clear of late that Pyongyang times its missile launches and other tests to increase the amount of attention they receive, such as during long US weekends or important international meetings. The Olympics, too, might look like an ideal time to get noticed.
South Korea will host the games Feb. 9-25 in Pyeongchang, which is just 80 km (50 miles) away from the heavily fortified border with North Korea. That location might seem to be ill-considered given North Korea’s frequent missile tests and fiery threats toward the United States (where president Donald Trump has unleashed fiery words of his own, including a memorable warning of “fire and fury”). But Pyeongchang won its bid to host the games in 2011, before the Kim regime started dramatically increasing the number of its missile launches in 2014.
Ticket sales to the big event have been slow. Organizers are expecting to sell more than a million tickets, about 70% of them to South Koreans. But as of mid-July only 229,000 spots had been sold (less than 20% of the total), including 177,000 to overseas fans. In the first phase of sales earlier this year, when organizers offered 162,000 tickets in an application lottery, South Koreans bought only 52,000 tickets. Organizers hope online ticket sales that started earlier this month will boost the numbers.
“Regional tensions surrounding North Korea are seemingly putting off some international visitors,” noted Inside the Games, reporting from Pyeongchang. The situation recalls the weak ticket sales ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, held in Sochi, Russia, with security fears playing a role there as well.
Other factors might be at play, including the lack of a strong winter sport culture in South Korea. But clearly it didn’t help when North Korea detonated a “horrifically destructive” hydrogen bomb earlier this month, or launched ballistic missiles over Japan in late August. Also not helping are the military responses from the US and South Korea: After the bomb test, aircraft from the two countries practiced taking out simulated North Korean installations in South Korea’s mountainous Gangwon province—the same province where the games will be held.
So far it appears that no athletes from North Korea will participate in the Olympics, despite invitations from South Korean president Moon Jae-in. That’s a bit ominous: Having its own skiers and skaters competing would make Pyongyang less likely to conduct weapons tests during the games.
Late last month, the Olympics organizing committee spent a few days in Pyeongchang briefing a hundred or so Olympics-related foreign officials about South Korea’s security preparations. Clearly a bid to allay safety fears, the briefing went over anti-terrorism measures and the situation surrounding North Korea.
“We are monitoring the situation carefully,” France’s Olympic Committee president Denis Masseglia told the Associated Press. “Of course if the tension escalates, we’ll need to adapt.”
The International Olympic Committee has no “plan B” to move the games from Pyeongchang, IOC official Gian Franco Kasper recently told AFP sports subsidiary SID. But he admitted the topic has come up.
“In personal conversations, it is certainly a topic, and I have read that Sochi or Munich come into play… But I think it would be wrong now to arrange a plan B. To burden a replacement venue with such a big commitment wouldn’t be justifiable, and we have a responsibility to Pyeongchang.”
Still, he worried some nations might keep their athletes at home: ”What I fear is that some nations may boycott the Games, because they have concerns for their athletes.”