Security Concerns Emerge During Final PyeongChang Preparations

(ATR) A look at how rising tensions in the Korean Peninsula are looming in the background as 2018 Olympics approach.

(ATR) The headlines paint an unmistakable picture: tensions around the Korean Peninsula are rising.

Caught in the middle of the escalating rhetoric remains preparations for a rather unknown Olympic Games. PyeongChang organizers have just nine months remaining until the best winter athletes and tourists from all over the world travel to South Korea. Currently,logistical issues, potential lack of accommodations, and an upcoming snap electionprovide the main source of unease.

But as the months turn into days before the Opening Ceremony, the main worry could be the safety of those who will be coming to the Games. South Korea technically remains in an active war with its Northern counterpart. The end of the Korean War in the 1950s provided only a truce, rather than a peace treaty.

A spokesperson for the PyeongChang 2018 told Around the Rings that questions on security plans for the Games "are a matter for government and national security to address". The spokesperson went on to say that PyeongChang would not speculate on a potential security risk that could impact the staging of the Games.

That speculation extended to whether North Korean athletes would be allowed at the Games, if provocations were to occur in the next nine months. PyeongChang 2018 President Hee Beom Lee has previously said North Korean athletes would be welcome to attend if they "promoted peace."

"PyeongChang 2018 will welcome all athletes who qualify from any country for the Games," the PyeongChang spokesperson said, unequivocally.

Requests to the South Korean government for clarification about the ongoing PyeongChang 2018 security plan were not returned.

IOC President Thomas Bach spoke to ATR on the sidelines of the recent Pan American Sports Organization General Assembly in Uruguay about a looming potential security threat. Bach was diplomatic about the current situation, acknowledging the complex geopolitical realities while remaining optimistic about avoiding a Games-cancelling conflict.

"We hope there again that whatever is happening, first of all that we are not ending up in a war situation where we see the political tensions," Bach said. "I’m sure that all this will be addressed and also the UN resolution concerning the Olympic Truce which will be taken there in autumn of this year to the General Assembly."

The IOC has a lot to lose if the Games were cancelled by actions out of its control. The IOC will give nearly $1 billion in funding to the PyeongChang Organizing Committee to help stage the Olympics. In addition, most of the IOC’s revenue comes from broadcast rights and sponsorship revenues. Those revenues would certainly be affected if the Olympics were called off.

Bach would not speak to whether the IOC was protected financially in the event of a cancelled Games, saying the organization’s "responsibility has to be to do everything in a secure and safe running" of PyeongChang 2018.

How Tense is Korea Actually?

Just how likely is a military engagement on the Korean Peninsula these days?

The United States has signaled the possibility of a preemptive strike as the North Korean government continues to pursue missile tests. Those tests have signaled to international watchdogs the potential for a future testing of a North Korean nuclear device.

Dr. Sangsoo Lee, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm-based Institute for Security & Development Policy, tells ATR that he believes "escalation of tensions with a number of nuclear and missile tests will continue in the next year."

Those tensions will probably lead to back-and-forth military exercises near the Demilitarized Zone. However, the threat of a full-scale war could increase if "North Korea [achieves] its declared goal of having a long-range nuclear warhead missile capable of striking the US mainland." With what Lee describes as a "lack [of] crisis management skills" within the South Korean government to de-escalate matters, the Olympics could be used as a diplomatic tool.

"Inviting its Northern neighbor to the 2018 Winter Olympics would be a good option for South Korea to prevent a North Korean provocation during the Games," Lee said.

The diplomatic option is seen by Shin Wook Kang, a professor at Dankook University and president of the Korean Sports Association, as the continued driving force for the security narrative. Kang told ATR that he believes there is a "low possibility of a full-scale regional war in the Korean Peninsula" ahead of the Olympics. Day to day life has not been disrupted by the escalating rhetoric in Pyongyang and Seoul and diplomatic solutions are ongoing, says Kang.

"It is highly expected that a new government after the presidential election in May will not only dedicate its best efforts to a peaceful relationship between the two Koreas, but also to the successful hosting of the 2018 Olympics," Kang said. "The government would gain an opportunity to harness the unstable political situation to the Olympics, considering the Olympic ideal and value of seeking world peace through sport."

Still, PyeongChang venues will be located around 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the North Korean border in Gangwon province. North Korea has fired short range missiles into Gangwon’s waters before. Also, the 2018 Games are scheduled for February, the typical time for United States-South Korean joint military drills, says Lee.

"If North Korea’s missiles [even if failed] enter in the sea of Gangwon province’s territory, it could be a huge risk for a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula," Lee adds.

Ultimately, Lee does not see a preemptive strike by the United States happening. Without a worst case scenario, it will be up to governments to contain any apparent escalation to prevent a disaster from playing out ahead of the Olympics.

Written by Aaron Bauer

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