Sports are often utilized as a political tool for peace, most notably the example of ping pong diplomacy between former U.S. President Richard Nixon and former Chairman of the Communist Party of China Mao Zedong in the early 1970s. This year, the Winter Olympics offered another political opportunity to two nations whose history is just as fraught: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Those two nations have generally respected the ceasefire across the demilitarized zone agreed upon following the Korean War. However, tensions between the sister countries flared about 13 times since 2015.
We shouldn’t give North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un too much diplomatic credit. As the ruler of a country notorious for its human rights abuses, Jong-un, an avid sports fan, is also a master of political propaganda.
Jong-un is no stranger to utilizing sports as a form of political propaganda, and continues that tradition in Pyongyang. North Korea sent 22 athletes to South Korea this Olympic cycle, the largest delegation the country has ever sent to the Olympics. Despite decades of political hostility, the two countries marched together in the opening ceremony under a united Korean flag, sending a message of unity and peace. The Olympics is certainly the ideal stage on which to send this message, as the event exemplifies international cooperation and community.
With North Korea’s recent symbolic messages at the Olympics, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s snub of Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, at the opening ceremony made the United States appear petty, as stated in a New York Times article, especially given the flurry and fury of hostile messages exchanged between Jong-un and U.S. President Donald J. Trump in recent months. Some media coverage portrayed North Korea as the victim invoking a sense of sympathy that isn’t completely deserved. While it would’ve been best had Pence not ignored Yo-jong, Pence should not have been the subject of so much media scrutiny for shunning someone complacent in genocide. Pence justified his actions as a refusal to give attention or convey acceptance to someone who is an integral part of the North Korean propaganda machine.
In an effort to discount and condemn Trump and his administration, major U.S. media outlets are lightening the atrocity of the actions committed by Jong-un. While the U.S. may have been left in an unflattering light after Pence’s blunder, that diplomatic misstep is hardly comparable to the actions committed by North Korea’s current leadership. There’s a big jump between Trump’s whining about “fake news” and the complete lack of an independent media in North Korea. The current news coverage of North Korea’s history-making presence at the Olympics ignores that moral gap between the two administrations.
The international community as well as U.S. media should not simply ignore the decades of human rights abuses perpetrated by Jong-un’s regime because of a facade put on for one month in 2018. While sports may play a role in politics, North Korea should not be given a pass. Relations with the nation should not improve without a radical shift in international relations and a new commitment to diplomacy.
Madison Stephens (21C) is from Little Rock, Ark.