The Strange, Dark History of North Korea and the Olympics

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tags: North Korea, Olympics



Sheila Miyoshi Jager, professor of history and East Asian Studies at Oberlin college, is the author of Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea.

… When it became increasingly obvious that Kim Il Sung could not rely on China’s support of a boycott either, the South Koreans had no further incentives to compromise. The games, and the PR triumph, would belong entirely to South Korea.

This was a humiliation on the world stage for Pyongyang, and it also exposed the longstanding lie of North Korea’s domestic propaganda that the South was an economic basket case, its people on the verge of revolution. “President Kim Il Sung and his son said that Seoul could not organize the Olympic Games as there is nothing in Seoul but beggars in the streets!” South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan fumed in a revealing exchange with IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. “It is only propaganda and I know it, but when they [the North Korean people] realize that these Games will be a success, they [the North Korean leadership] became very nervous. ... They can do nothing to stop Seoul!” Chun was right. He had won.

Kim then turned to a new option: sabotage. On November 29, 1987, two North Korean terrorists planted a bomb on KAL flight 858, a plane from Baghdad to Seoul, killing all 115 passengers and crew members, most of whom were South Koreans. The act earned North Korea international condemnation—it was blacklisted as a terrorist state—and the enduring enmity of the South Korean people.

But the worst was yet to come for North Korea. The Seoul Games also precipitated diplomatic recognition of South Korea by the Socialist bloc countries, which previously hadn’t officially recognized the South. It was part of new South Korean President Roh Tae Woo’s Nordpolitik policy, to isolate North Korea and thus force it to open itself to the world. Now recognized as a vibrant, rich and modern society, the South found cash-strapped communist countries knocking on its door, and Roh was happy to open it. “We would follow the road to Pyongyang through Eastern Europe, Moscow and Beijing,” he announced triumphantly. The first blow to Pyongyang came from Hungary. South Korea offered a loan of $625 million to help Hungary’s struggling economy. Full diplomatic relations were established on February 1, 1989, over Pyongyang’s vociferous objections.

The biggest blow came in 1990, however, when the Soviet Union announced that it would follow Hungary’s lead. As part of the Soviet Union’s agreement to establish full diplomatic relations with Seoul, Gorbachev also agreed to stop all military aid and cooperation with North Korea in return for South Korea’s economic assistance. China, North Korea’s other patron and neighbor, established diplomatic relations two years later, in August 1992.

Pyongyang was furious. Abandoned by his allies, humiliated by the Seoul Games and incapable of negotiating with South Korea on equal terms, Kim Il Sung sought to ensure his nation’s survival by pursuing a more extreme kind of leverage: nuclear deterrence….

Read entire article at Politico

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