A gaggle of young North Koreans in neon chased me down the mountain on skis, expertly skidding to a stop at my feet as I sat on the slope tightening my bindings.
They peppered me with questions: “What’s your name? How old are you? Where are you from? Are you married?”
It was 2014 and we were at Masikryong Ski Resort, a pet project of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The resort, a multimillion-dollar facility featuring luxury lodges and pristine slopes about 100 miles east of Pyongyang, had opened a few weeks earlier and I was there on a reporting trip — and to get a little snowboarding in. These North Koreans, all students, told me they were assigned to learn to ski during their university break. Six days a week, eight hours a day, all they did was ski.
Even back then, I could see the wheels turning in Mr. Kim’s mind. “To compete at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018?” I asked the young men. They chuckled. “Maybe,” they said.
Four years later, North Korea is sending skiers — probably including some of those young men I met in 2014 — across the Demilitarized Zone to compete as wild-card entries at the first Winter Olympics to be held on the Korean Peninsula. South Korean athletes, meanwhile, have been training at Masikryong, perhaps the world’s most controversial ski resort, built in defiance of United Nations sanctions and in spite of North Korea’s crushing poverty.
This cross-border athletic exchange would seem to encapsulate the spirit of peace and unity at the heart of the Olympics. But I worry that it is too fast, too soon and that in their haste to ensure an Olympics without provocation, South Korean officials could be rushing headlong into a premature détente.
All of this may seem like a stunning, surprising turn of events. After all, just weeks earlier, Mr. Kim tested a ballistic missile designed to strike the United States and engaged in a war of words — and Twitter taunts — with President Trump. But Mr. Kim has for years been mapping out a strategy to insert North Korea into these Olympics and to capitalize on the attention focused on its rival to the south. The missile tests were part of that plan.
hirty-one years ago, as South Korea prepared to host the 1988 Summer Olympics, Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, hatched his own plot to take advantage of Seoul’s Olympic moment: Negotiations over North Korea’s participation had disintegrated, and in a move meant to warn Seoul of the perils of sidelining North Korea, the elder Mr. Kim orchestrated the bombing of a Korean Air flight that killed 115 people. The goal: to spook the world into thinking South Korea was a dangerous place. The plan backfired; the Games went ahead without North Korea.
Kim Jong-un, who took power in late 2011 after his father’s death, has carved out a savvier route to the Olympics: nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. With every banned test of a bomb or missile, he holds the world in thrall with the threat of nuclear war. That has pushed Seoul onto its back foot. Questions abroad about whether it’s safe to send athletes to South Korea have dogged the Pyeongchang Games, and ticket sales have been sluggish. South Korea needs these Olympics to be peaceful in order to be successful.
Then, on New Year’s Day, Mr. Kim announced that he wanted to send North Korean athletes to Pyeongchang, though only two — a figure-skating duo — had qualified. It was a pinky-finger promise not to stage any provocations during the Winter Games. It was also a stunning act of theater.
In swift succession, just days before the Feb. 9 opening of the Pyeongchang Games, the two Koreas agreed to march into the Olympic arena under a unified flag, to field a joint women’s ice hockey team for the first time at an Olympics and to stage cultural performances. Mr. Kim had yet one more surprise: He is sending not only North Korea’s ceremonial head of state but also his trusted younger sister in what will be the first official visit by an immediate member of the Kim family to South Korea.
This may sound like a movie-ready Olympic story of peace and reconciliation, but I doubt it will be so simple.
As a young journalist, I was at Sydney’s Olympic Stadium in 2000 when the two Koreas marched in together, for the first time at an Olympic Games, under the white-and-pale-blue “unified Korea” flag. The moment, met by cheers and a standing ovation, sent chills down my spine. It felt like we were on the cusp of a new era of peace.
Eighteen years later, the mood is different here in South Korea. Hope for peace has been replaced by distrust and skepticism. The South Koreans who remember Korea as one country and long for its reunification — my grandparents’ generation — have passed away. Younger people, accustomed to affluence, are less willing to shoulder the financial burden of reconciliation or reunification, a wariness reflected in the drop in President Moon Jae-in’s popularity in recent days.
It’s not just skeptical South Koreans whom Mr. Moon needs to placate. As the Games begin, South Korea must navigate hosting the North Korean athletes and officials without violating United Nations sanctions — and without alienating Washington, which is leading a global campaign to pressure, punish and isolate Pyongyang for its nuclear defiance.
“We will not allow North Korean propaganda to hijack the message and imagery of the Olympic Games,” Vice President Pence said en route to Pyeongchang, vowing to highlight North Korean provocations and alleged human rights abuses and promising new sanctions.
Mr. Pence has a point. North Korea’s participation in these Olympics runs the risk of rewarding bad behavior and handing Mr. Kim a diplomatic victory that he will brandish as proof that his strategy was right. Still, we have to start somewhere after so many years of tension.
I don’t advocate vacationing at North Korea’s ski resort, which serves as propaganda for Mr. Kim and a reward for the political elite while the rest of the people go without heat, food and clean water. And yet, as the first American journalist to work in North Korea, where I opened The Associated Press’s Pyongyang bureau, I know the value of giving North Koreans a chance to interact with the outside world.
Back on that slope in 2014, the questions came fast and furious from the young North Koreans who hovered above me, leaning on their poles.
“Where did you learn to snowboard?” one asked.
California, I said, eliciting a look of dismay. The United States remains Enemy No. 1, after all. “Should I say ‘Switzerland’? I joked. His face brightened and he broke into a smile, showing off a mouthful of gold crowns.
“How do you stay balanced? Can you teach me one day?”
I’m typically the one trying to get the stony-faced North Koreans to answer questions. But away from minders and surveillance, in the mountains where no one could hear us, they had no qualms about grilling this curiosity in their midst, a Korean-American woman on a snowboard. I will never forget that moment, and neither will they.
In a small way, it was sports diplomacy, an example of a shared love of the snow and the mountains trumping the barriers that politics and history had created.
In a much bigger way, we have a moment here to allow sports diplomacy to create space for better understanding and communication. These Olympics offer an opening — if handled skillfully and strategically by South Korea and the United States.
North Korea has already hijacked media coverage of the Games. But once the cameras, athletes and tourists go home, diplomats shouldn’t allow the region to drift back to threats and provocation. If they do, Mr. Kim will be the only winner in this complicated game of Korean sports diplomacy.
After 20 years of watching the two Koreas veer between reconciliation and recrimination, only to bring us to the brink of nuclear disaster, I cannot go into these Olympic Games with the same wide-eyed optimism I had in 2000. But I will be watching with an open mind and with the hope that this time, the two Koreas and their allies will transform this moment into an opening for negotiations that bring real, lasting peace.
Jean H. Lee is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.