A toxic mix: The Olympics, Rocket Man and the dotard – The San Diego Union-Tribune
The gold, silver and bronze medals for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, were unveiled earlier this week. The outer edges are ringed with letters in the Korean alphabet, forming diagonal ridges across the face to resemble a tree trunk. They hang from a teal and pale red ribbon made from the traditional Korean fabric of Gapsa and embroidered with Hangeul patterns.
They’re beautiful and stylish and exquisite, and largely an afterthought right now. Two other elements from the periodic table are on people’s minds as the XXIIIth Winter Games rapidly approach:
Plutonium and hydrogen.
Type “PyeongChang” into Google Earth, and the globe will spin around to Asia and zoom into the Korean peninsula, to a mountainous region east of Seoul in Gangwon Province. Less than 50 miles to the north is the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone bordering North Korea. Just north of that are missile installations. A few weeks ago, Gangwon Province was the site of joint bombing exercises by U.S. and South Korean jets that simulated North Korean targets.
Several events will be held in the coastal city of Gangneung. It was there, 21 years ago, that a North Korean Sang-O class submarine surreptitiously dropped off three soldiers on an espionage mission to scout South Korean military facilities. When the sub returned to retrieve them, it ran aground.
The soldiers destroyed sensitive documents on board and figured the border was close enough to make a run for it, initiating the biggest manhunt in South Korean history. For 49 days, the army searched for the infiltrators and killed or captured all of them, except one. They hauled the sub from the sea and put it on display in Gangneung next to a South Korean warship and fighter jets.
They’re in what’s called “Unification Park.”
So that’s what we’re getting into next February, or not getting into as the war of rhetoric between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump escalates like two petulant 5-year-olds on the playground. Sand could start flying any moment.
The French, just two weeks after being awarded the 2024 Summer Games, were the first to say what everyone’s thinking. On Friday, the minister of sports told a radio network that if “our security can’t be assured, the French Olympic team will stay at home.”
The head of Austria’s Olympic committee wasn’t far behind, saying “if the situation worsens and the security of our athletes is no longer guaranteed, we will not go to South Korea.”
And the U.S. Olympic Committee? The timing couldn’t be worse, with its Olympic Media Summit this week in Park City, Utah, a confluence of journalists and American athletes for three days of interviews – or in this case, 350 journalists asking 113 athletes about Rocket Man and mushroom clouds.
The USOC leadership will have scripted, manicured responses to the inevitable questions, and they’ll coach the athletes to politely say they’re not politicians and just want to land triple Salchows.
Then everyone will privately turn on their phones to see if the North Korean “madman” has detonated a hydrogen bomb in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean yet, or if the “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” has launched a pre-emptive strike, as Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) recently suggested.
It’s not good.
This isn’t new to the Olympics, fear and loathing in the months before Opening Ceremony. People were so afraid of terrorist attacks at Athens in 2004 that Union-Tribune editors had us lug an unwieldy satellite phone there, so we could breathlessly report after the jihadists had knocked out the cell towers with their dirty bombs. Other journalists took gas masks for the chemical attacks.
The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi were in a volatile region crawling with militant Islamists, and folks were whipped into a frothing panic when a “black widow” female suicide bomber was reportedly spotted in downtown. “I’ve never seen a greater threat in my lifetime,” Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, told Fox News. “I think there’s a high degree of probability that something will detonate, something will go off.”
My flight from Moscow landed in Sochi, and out the plane window I could see hundreds of soldiers surrounding the runway, machine guns at the ready – part of Vladimir Putin’s vaunted “ring of steel” security perimeter.
International Olympic Committee Vice President Anita DeFrantz has called the Olympics since the 1972 terrorist attack in Munich “the safest place in the world to be,” and there’s some truth to that.
The security – both seen and unseen – is at such extraordinary levels that guys living in caves with suicide vests aren’t penetrating it. And if you somehow rain terror on a global event of such sacred standing as an Olympics, you basically have vilified the entire planet with no sympathetic regimes; there’ll be nowhere to hide.
But DeFrantz also understands first-hand how politics and pole vaulters can get entangled. She was a rower on the U.S. team that boycotted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, President Jimmy Carter’s ill-fated protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Would Trump boycott PyeongChang? You wouldn’t think so, since it could be viewed as cowering to a man who has called him “a frightened dog.” But sending athletes 50 miles from the DMZ – a nuke would take, oh, about 12 seconds to arrive – might be unnecessarily poking the bear.
The best solution might be a de facto human shield of North Korean lugers and Nordic skiiers, except none has qualified so far for PyeongChang, just as none did for Sochi. The best chance are pairs skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, who are scheduled to compete in a last-chance qualifier in Germany next weekend.
There also has been talk of the IOC granting wild-card spots to North Korean athletes. South Korean president Moon Jae-in, the son of North Korean refugees, has incessantly pushed for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, framing the Olympics as “a very good opportunity for inter-Korea peace and reconciliation.”