Sohn Hak-Kyu’s Olympic Folly

2011-04-19t091219z_01_sen202_rtridsp_0_korea-politics.jpgWhy did I shudder when I heard that South Korea had won the winter Olympics? Because I knew it was just a matter of time before some imbecile had an idea like this one:

Rep. Sohn Hak-kyu, chairman of the opposition Democratic Party, said Monday the party would push for “some events at the 2018 Winter Olympics to be staged in North Korea.

He said he would also bring up the issue of forming a unified team with the North in future talks with the ruling Grand National Party and the government.

“We are seriously reviewing ways of involving the North in the hosting of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics,” Sohn said during a party supreme council meeting.

“We will make the PyeongChang Olympics the turning point in Korea’s divided history. [Korea Times]

I cannot believe this man actually believes what he just said. I can believe he believes that some of his potential voters believe what he just said, which saddens me. It certainly didn’t take long for North Korea to endorse this idea. They’re all about sponging off the neighbors they periodically attack.

If you take Sohn at his word, he’s still chasing the lost dream of bribing North Korea into being nice, making up, and joining hands, which seemed to be all the South Korean left stood for during the decade it held in power in South Korea. But it’s one thing for them to want to finance Kim Jong Il as part of a novel experiment, as long as they could still theorize plausibly that financing North Korea’s regime would moderate, reform, and transform it. It’s another thing for them to want to finance North Korea’s regime after events have conclusively refuted that theory, and after Kim Jong Il opened a low-intensity conflict that killed dozens of South Koreans, terrorized thousands more, and depopulated a small but highly strategic piece of South Korean territory. The Commander of U.S. Forces in Korea doesn’t think we’ve seen the last of North Korea’s escalated provocations. Meanwhile, we’re still seeing constant reminders of the Sunshine Policy’s costly and failed legacy:

Hyundai Asan is suffering snowballing losses after tours to Mt. Kumgang in North Korea were halted in the wake of fatal shooting of a South Korean tourist in the resort. Park Wang-ja was shot dead by a North Korean soldier on July 11, 2008 and Hyundai Asan’s sales losses have accumulated to W390 billion (US$1=W1,058) over the three years, with staff dwindling from about 1,000 to just over 300, a spokesman said on Sunday. [Chosun Ilbo]

The idea behind Sunshine was to leverage South Korea’s financial advantage to buy influence in the North and thus transform its political system, but something like the opposite is closer to the truth. Plenty of South Korean money poured into the black hole of North Korea, but some South Koreans were so desperate to see results justifying that cost that North Korea ended up gaining more political influence in the South than vice versa. North Korea’s determination not to reform itself meant that even attempts to use sporting events to bridge political and cultural differences often widened them, and sometimes ended horribly for the North Koreans involved. We even saw North Koreans begin to impose their censorship on political expression on South Korean territory. North Korea’s own approach to sports has been, like everything else in North Korea, relentlessly political and defiant of the ways in which other human beings are expected to behave (possibly to include its doping rules). When it loses matches, North Korean coaches revert to unsportsmanlike excuses that their athletes were struck by lightning or poisoned by their hosts. After a decade of the Sunshine Policy, there’s more evidence that it changed South Korea’s political system than evidence that it changed the North’s.

And we can look forward to five years of that if Sohn Hak-Kyu becomes of the President of South Korea.

So how is Sohn’s theory still plausible to any thinking person? I can’t imagine that many of its supporters are attracted to it for logical reasons. Most people, regardless of intelligence, arrive at their conclusions for emotional reasons that resist evidence and logic. Their intelligence is mostly squandered on elaborate justifications for what they’ve already decided to believe. Plenty of intelligent people still do support Sunshine-like policies because they can’t see any better ideas and feel compelled to advocate for something, if only so that they appear to have answers. But on what basis can they still argue that it might work? What has North Korea done to deserve a piece of this action in any sense at all? And once again, why is North Korea allowed into the Olympics in any capacity whatsoever? After all, for years, the IOC didn’t let South Africa in, and as racist a place as South Africa was, at least they didn’t kill babies for being racially impure there. And we ought to remember that we object to racism because the basic presumption of equality is just one of many human rights. If the IOC has made the decision to stand for one such basic right, how can it justify holding an Olympic event in a place that does this to people?

The pendulum effect being what it is, I have a terrible feeling that someone like Sohn could actually win the next presidential election in South Korea. If so, I’ll probably regain my sense of urgency about getting American troops the hell out of South Korea. I suppose Sohn could be proposing this to appease the far left wing of his party. Sohn is a defector from the more conservative Grand National Party. He recently defeated the loser of the 2008 presidential election, Chung Dong-Young, as leader of the left-wing Democratic Party. Sohn isn’t from the Cheolla provinces, the DP’s base. It’s doubtful that he’ll be the DP’s presidential nominee without a challenge from within his own party, or from another left-wing party. In South Korean election years, the only thing you can rely on is that there will be frequent and dramatic shifts of party affiliation, nomenclature, and loyalty.

In the meantime, North Korea is changing — not because of any officially sanctioned cultural exchanges, joint ventures, or feel-good sports spectacles, but in 23 million small ways, and despite the regime’s desperation to stop that change. North Korea is changing anyway because even among the world’s most downtrodden people, there is an emerging market for the basic needs that the state refuses to provide, and also for knowledge, news, and entertainment from the greater world. Because of this, the metastasis of its political system is now probably too advanced for the Olympics to save:

A Chongjin source reported from North Hamgyeong province on June 26th, “People are copying and renting out South Korean dramas in Chongjin.” The source said that there are so many interested in the dramas that where previously they might gather in secret to watch them, now people are trading them as a business. The transaction method is comparable with video rental Stores in the South.

“Those trading in the CDs can’t do so legitimately and always have to be on the lookout for the authorities. But they are getting repeat customers from those who are addicted to the products,” said the source.

The CDs are produced in China and smuggled into North Korea in large quantities. In order to assure the success of the operation, it is essential for the traders to establish sound corrupt relationships with the security agencies. [Open News]

Even if the regime manages to forestall events like those in Syria and Libya for many more years, the next generation of propagandists and enforcers won’t believe in the system, and the inhibitions of the common people about hiding that disbelief are eroding steadily. There’s reason to hope that by 2018, North Korea will have undergone some dramatic change of government, or be in a state of such disarray that reality will hush this misbegotten idea.

11 Comments

  1. I noted much the same thing about the predictability of having North Korea host some of the events.

    Among the other logistic issues, if this were to go forward (and I don’t think it will), is where exactly would they do this? About the only options, were it to remain in the vicinity, would be something like KÅ­mgangsan Resort, which is one of the few places in the area that is able to even consider hosting a large number of people.

    Otherwise they’d have to have events farther away, well outside the actual Pyongchang geographic sphere. Perhaps Pyongyang or Kaesong where existing facilities could be transformed with (hopefully) minimal effort. In normal circumstances, the IOC wouldn’t sign off on something like that, but if they thought North Korea could be brought in that way, then they might be okay with it.

    But, like all the other times (Seoul Olympics, World Cup, joint teams, etc.), it’s almost certainly not going to happen, barring actual collapse of the Pyongyang regime.

  2. The last part of this piece has a small bit of good news that will hopefully grow much bigger and even better. That mention of 2018 is interesting – Mr. Stanton, if you have earlier explained your predictions re: 2018, I missed them; please forgive me for that. I almost get the impression that definitely South Korea, and even the PRC, want information exports re: SK to flow into NK as a way to instruct, train, acclimatize, etc., the NK people about the reality of SK. The objective is to prepare them for the inevitable – a KFR collapse and a change of management. Even if the NK people could see the Web, they would need a deal of time/energy/effort to build up some sense of the outside world. They would need that with these dramas as well – I’m guessing these shows have as much production/artistic/etc. value as American soap operas – but they would accelerate the training of/for the NK people for the cost of the DVD/pen drive. IIRC Mr. Stanton, http://www.freekorea.us mentions every now and then how SK language idioms show up in NK spoken language, and that tragically, NK people go to the gulag for singing SK songs. That can only mean that the flow actually works; if only AC Nielsen or something could somehow get the ratings for these shows directly or indirectly, to measure awareness of the show plot lines throughout the country. After all, in the U.S., most everyone understood ” . . . who shot J.R.?” at one time. No cracks about my age . . .

  3. I was wondering when you were gonna write about this.

    So I have only read the headlines to news reports about this topic, but didn’t read the articles because I thought it was so ridiculous.

    So, NOT that it would ever happen, but if it was attempted to co-host, would North Korean athletes be allowed to go into South Korea during this time? I mean, if they are trying to be so unified and all….

  4. ‘… someone like Sohn could actually win the next presidential election in South Korea. If so, I’ll probably regain my sense of urgency about getting American troops the hell out of South Korea.’ Wow. Joshua, who knows vastly more about Korea than I do, could go to step 3 of the Glans Plan without steps 1 and 2.

  5. So, NOT that it would ever happen, but if it was attempted to co-host, would North Korean athletes be allowed to go into South Korea during this time? I mean, if they are trying to be so unified and all….

    North Korean athletes have visited the South on multiple times. The last time, I believe, was for a World Cup qualifier two years ago. Keep in mind that North Korean athletes, like their counterparts in the former Communist Bloc are not “amateurs” or ordinary citizens, but rather specially-selected employees of the state.

    If by some chance the North did get a venue or two (and assuming the country even exists by that time), it would interested how they would handle swarms of foreigners descending on the country. A useful analogue might be the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students. The event is described in detail in Michael Harrold’s memoir’s Comrade’s and Strangers, and captured here in this French-language documentary:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z972J4lVttU

  6. “North Korea is changing anyway because even among the world’s most downtrodden people, there is an emerging market for the basic needs that the state refuses to provide, and also for knowledge, news, and entertainment from the greater world.” Many of us would add religious faith to this list; moreover, this is the primary need for many NK people who have exhibited heroic virtue in their willingness to suffer and die for their belief and trust in a God other than Kim Il-sung.

  7. Joshua wrote:

    If so, I’ll probably regain my sense of urgency about getting American troops the hell out of South Korea. I suppose Sohn could be proposing this to appease the far left wing of his party.

    Not even the most leftist of South Korea’s presidents have proposed that. Not Roh Moohyun, not Kim Daejung. Why would Sohn?

    It doesn’t make sense of the US to get out just because a leftist is elected. Maybe the US should start another ill-planned war so the leftist Sohn can send troops and prove his loyalty, à la Roh Moohyun. 😉

    No, the US getting out just makes it easier for North Korea’s murderous regime to expand its influence, and possibly its territory. And for what reason? Few will vote for Sohn because of his North Korea policy, so why punish the country with a withdrawal that will be disastrous for a whole bunch of people in Northeast Asia, including US allies in Japan?

    As for the foolishly naïve Glans Plan, it is even more foolhardy if we jump right to #3, because #1 (China gets out of the Korean Peninsula) will surely never happen then.

  8. The US should reduce troops abroad, slash military salaries, and reduce aid to Israel, Egypt, and other countries. The multi trillion dollar deficit is out of control.

  9. Alas, pure-bred populism isn’t folly in a country where pure-bred populism of all hues gets far too many of the votes.

    The consensus is that this clown won’t be the candidate when the time comes, but to be frank that is neither here nor there. Anyone on that side of the chamber would have said something similar, since they are busy trying to attract votes from people whose only wish is to drive down the rice mountain by shipping it 500km north and think that paying the Danegeld is the way forth to a better life. Sohn, meanwhile, knows his stuff, and said what he did happy in the knowledge that it the impossibility of what he was about to suggest is written AS CLEAR AS DAY in the IOC’s own regulations.

    Meanwhile, and more importantly, I’ll be in DC from Sunday to next Friday for a USIP conference. Anyone?

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