South Korea offering an olive branch. North Korea striking a defiant tone. And the world waiting to see if tensions rattling the Korean Peninsula could undermine an Olympic Games, with calamitous consequences.
That was the backdrop 30 years ago as South Korea prepared to host its first Olympics in the summer of 1988.
In some ways, the fears then are reverberating today — with potentially even more at stake because of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
But this year, as snow-capped PyeongChang — just 50 miles from the border with the North — prepares to host the Winter Olympics next month, foreign policy analysts say the lessons of the Seoul Games could show the region how to move closer to not only a trouble-free event, but a path to permanent peace.
North Korean official says South Korea’s reaction to Olympic proposal was a surprise
The 1988 Games were “a major missed opportunity for South Korea,” said Sergey Radchenko, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington who has studied North Korea’s role in the Olympics. “They missed the opportunity to engage with the North.”
So what’s different this time around?
High-level talks between the North and South this month led to an agreement to not only have their Olympic athletes march together for the first time since the 2006 Winter Games in Torino, Italy, but to form their first unified Olympic team.
A dozen female ice hockey players from North Korea will join players from the South to compete under a blue-and-white unification flag.
“There are other team sports in the Winter Games, but ice hockey is always something special, and not just for the audiences it commands,” Radchenko said. “I just hope that the joint team performs well. It is perhaps the most contentious angle of the entire exercise.”
That’s because a small group of activists, including defectors from the North, protested the unified hockey team in Seoul this week, burning images of the North Korean flag and dictator Kim Jong Un. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who swept into power last year, ending a decade of conservative rule in the democratic country, also saw his approval rating drop to a four-month low after the agreement was announced, Reuters reported. He was spurned in part by his base of young South Koreans who are unhappy that the North is appearing to try to steal the spotlight.
Related: Will North Korea’s missile tests resume after Olympics?
South Korea, however, is trudging ahead with plans for a united games in PyeongChang.
It’s a departure from the 1988 Seoul Games, when North Korea wanted a bigger seat at the table during the Olympics and sought to make its capital, Pyongyang, a co-host — even though North and South remain technically at war, without an actual peace treaty after the Korean War ended.
Radchenko, in a 2011 report looking back to the Seoul Games, wrote that the North’s desire to co-host could have jump-started inter-Korean dialogue if it had been handled differently.
But rounds of talks held between the International Olympic Committee and the North fell apart in July 1987 as the two sides wrangled over details. While the South appeared open to the North hosting a few sports, the North decided it wasn’t worth the trouble — refusing to even march with the South Korean delegation during the opening and closing ceremonies, normally seen as a symbol of hope and reconciliation.
The North’s boycott of the ceremonies only stoked anxiety for Olympic organizers.
The IOC’s president at the time, Juan Antonio Samaranch, “was very worried by the prospect of some horrific scenario unfolding in South Korea in the run-up or, worse, during the Games,” Radchenko wrote.
And something did happen.
In November 1987, a Korean Air passenger jet flying from Baghdad to Seoul blew up in midair, killing all 115 on board. Most were South Korean nationals.
FROM NOV. 29, 1987: NBC Nightly News reports on loss of Korean Air Flight 858
The downing was discovered to be the work of two North Korean spies, who planted a bomb disguised as a small clock and a bottle of wine in the plane’s overhead compartment, according to a CIA report in 1988.
The two spies, man and a woman, got off the plane at a stopover in Dubai and did not get back on; both were later captured. The man committed suicide by chomping down on a cigarette containing cyanide. The woman — Kim Hyon-hui, 25 at the time — tried to do the same, but survived and was later sentenced to death.
But South Korea’s president at the time pardoned her, believing she was brainwashed by the North and forced to carry out the bombing.
North Korean ex-spy Kim Hyon-hui speaks out
Radchenko said that Pyongyang “pinned its hopes” on such terrorist acts raising that specter of fear before the Seoul Games.
The South, in response, strengthened its security and didn’t cower — with the Olympics going off without a hitch. (The host nation even came in fourth in the final medal count.)
This year, Kim Jong Un is going full-steam ahead with his PyeongChang charm offensive, including sending a delegation that is expected to include a 230-member singing and dancing cheer squad.
“Kim Jong Un has an interest in winter sports — he’s even opened his own ski resort,” said Columbia University professor Stephen Noerper, a senior policy director at the Korea Society and a former senior analyst at the U.S. State Department. “He’s starting to understand that [participating in the Olympics] provides an important coming out for North Korea.”
But the Trump administration warns that any show of sportsmanship by the regime is an attempt to spread its propaganda and shouldn’t stymie criticism of the North’s poor human rights record.
Still, there’s hope for some that the Koreas’ Olympic détente will result in actual peace talks. Kim’s government has not promised to discuss its nuclear and missile programs, and analysts warn that once the games are over an emboldened Kim could start ramping up missile testing again after test-launching three intercontinental ballistic missiles last year.
“The hope is to get them to consider coming to the table” about their nuclear program, Noerper said. “It’s an aspiration, but it’s one that the games — because of what it represents — can make nations work toward.”