From Pyongyang to PyeongChang: Belligerence or Cooperation?

From Pyongyang to PyeongChang: Belligerence or Cooperation?

From left: Daniel Pinkston, Mason Richey, and Leif-Eric Easley

October 24, 2017 - Asia Society Korea resumed its 2017 Monthly Luncheon Lecture Series on Tuesday with a panel discussion titled “From Pyongyang to PyeongChang: Belligerence or Cooperation?”  The panelists included: Daniel Pinkston, Advisory Committee Member at Asia Society Korea and Lecturer in International Relations at Troy University; Leif-Eric Easley, Associate Professor of International Studies at Ewha Womans University; and Mason Richey, Associate Professor of International Politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. With the PyeongChang Olympics fast approaching, there has been a great deal of speculation from participating countries regarding how safe South Korea will be during the games. The three academics each gave a different perspective on the issue before opening the floor for discussion.


Daniel Pinkston started the discussion by giving a positive take on the threat of North Korea in the build-up to the Winter Olympics. Sport plays a vital role for North Korea as an instrument for propaganda, social mobilization, and public health. While in the 1980’s the country carried out a number of terrorist attacks in an effort to disrupt South Korea’s hosting of the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Olympic Games, North Korea has taken a different approach in recent years. They sent cheering squads to South Korea to participate in the 2002 Asian Games, 2003 Universiade, 2005 Asian Track and Field Games, 2014 Asian Games, and most recently, to the 2017 World Taekwondo Championships. This soft power acts as both a smile campaign and intelligence collection operation, and Pinkston is confident that North Korea will participate in PyeongChang.


Mason Richey spoke about the potential security issues that could happen between now and the PyeongChang Olympics, and what threats North Korea might carry out before, during, and after the games. While we may not be in a full-blown crisis, we are in a conflict spiral, especially as both the U.S. and North Korea have expressed a preference for war over compromise. While it has been one month since the last missile test, there is a high possibility of more provocative actions in the coming weeks or months, and a 3-star general in the South Korean army recently commented that the chance of war with the North now stands at 50%. That being said, Richey believes an international attack on the Games would hinder, rather than help, North Korea’s strategic objectives. More likely are cyber-attacks, which are cheap to execute, low risk, likely to damage the reputation of South Korea, and often lucrative. 


Leif-Eric Easley finished the discussion by talking about regional issues in Japan and China. The recent lower house election win for Prime Minister Abe was significant in that it highlighted a fragmented opposition and strengthened the position of the ruling conservative government. North Korea has played an important role in Japanese politics of late with Abe looking to develop military strategies, improve missile defense, and potentially change Japan’s pacifist constitution. The development of a robust Japanese army will have implications for both North and South Korea. With China also continuing its building of a world-class military, and Xi Jinping wanting to dictate how the international community deals with North Korea, South Korean influence in the region is becoming ever more limited.