PyeongChang And The Slippery Sport Of Olympic Geopolitics

Curling in PyeongChang on Feb. 8
Curling in PyeongChang on Feb. 8


The PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games finally kicked off Thursday with the riveting-if-baffling sport of curling and a first victory for hosts South Korea. But all eyes will be on the official opening ceremony tomorrow, especially since a disproportionate dose of the attention for this edition will be focused off the ice and snow.

Coming in the wake of nuclear threats between the U.S. and North Korea, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been touting the Games as the "Peace Olympics." Athletes from the North and South will be marching together, under a blue-and-white flag representing a united Korea, for the first time since the Asian Winter Games of 2007. In addition, the women's ice-hockey squad will be the first ever combined Korean Olympic team.

Word also came this week that Kim Yo-jung, North Korea leader Kim Jong-un's sister, will be part of a high-level Olympic delegation at tomorrow'sceremonies, making her the first member of North Korea's ruling family to visit the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Ms. Kim is expected to meet with President Moon on Saturday. All of this seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago, when Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump were busy boasting about their buttons.

Could sports really pave the way for lasting peace between two countries still technically at war with each other? It was the dream of Pierre de Coubertin, the father of modern Olympic Games, that "athleticism" would help harmony between nations, eager as he was to rekindle the spirit of the Ancient Olympic Games.

Tantamount to a Trojan Horse tactic.

But as Julien Sorez, a French sports historian, notes in an article published in Le Figaro, the "sacred truce" between Ancient Greek cities was actually respected "less for moral reasons than geopolitical ones, namely to allow athletes to travel between the cities." More than two millennia later, little has changed, and Olympic Games are at least as much a "geopolitical weapon" now as they used to be.

Writing in the South China Morning Post, David Josef Volodzko argued that the presence of North Korean pop singers in the South for the celebrations was tantamount to a Trojan Horse tactic, and "likely to be the first of many soft-power salvoes aimed at stealing the South's limelight." Others, meanwhile, have noted that the North's PR operation is made easier by the fact that PyeongChang and Pyongyang (the North's capital) are such similar names that you could easily get confused and believe the Games are actually taking place in North Korea.

Writing in The Korean Times this morning, Seoul-based writer Ned Forney also denounces what he says has "become a geopolitical event so hijacked and manipulated that the athletes seem to be only a sideshow." He adds: "History books years from now may record the next few weeks as the calm before the storm. I hope not, but unless I've totally misread Kim Jong-un and his regime, North Korea has no intention of living peacefully with its neighbor to the South, or any other country."

In Le Figaro, Sorez writes that "the risk is to see what we'd like to see. In 1936, the fact that the Nazis had hosted the 1936 Olympics had reassured part of the public opinion." And we all know how that ended.

Hopefully, history won't repeat itself in the geopolitical arena. Curling is anyone's guess.

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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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