North Korea's Kim Jong Un is not likely to disrupt the Olympic Games in February if for no other reason than he is fond of winter sports, according to experts who have studied the reclusive, nuclear-armed leader.
His string of missile tests in 2017 cast a pall over preparations for the games in nearby Pyeongchang, leading to some confusion from the Trump administration last month over whether U.S. athletes would be allowed to go to the Games. (The U.S. Olympic Committee is not planning on pullinng out.)
But on New Year's Day, even as he warned the U.S. about "a nuclear button" on his desk, Kim suggested immediate talks with Seoul over sending a delegation to the Olympics. South Korea responded the next day by proposing a meeting on Jan. 9.
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When the Olympics begin a month later, experts believe he may be watching.
“He seems to — whether it’s his own inclination or born of his experience as a student in Switzerland — to like winter sports,” said Stephen Noerper, an adjunct associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University in New York City. “I think that’s an important consideration.”
Noerper noted that Kim built a ski resort in the same mountain range as the venues for the Winter Games, only to the north of the border. NBC News reported last January that the Masikryong ski resort was kept open by work gangs whose members appeared to be as young as 11 or 12 and who were clearing snow by hand, without snowplows or trucks to scatter salt.
Exactly which winter sports Kim would favor isn’t clear. Noerper speculated that he might like skiing but noted he had no idea whether Kim skis.
Kim is believed to have attended boarding school in Switzerland, but for how long is also not known. Some reports have him at the the Liebefeld-Steinhölzli Schule near Bern between 1998 and 2000, when he would have been 15 to 17 years old. However Kurt Campbell, a former U.S. secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, has told CNN that Kim spent seven or eight years in Switzerland. He reportedly posed as the son of a driver for the North Korean embassy, according to The Washington Post.
Whatever North Korea does, the International Olympic Committee is stuck holding the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang because it is too late to move the Olympics, said Mark Dyreson, a sports historian at Penn State University.
“They’re over a barrel if they want to have the Winter Games,” he said.
South Korea is hoping that North Korea will participate in the Games, even with a North Korean cheering section, Noerper said. But tensions over the North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile tests and the recent escape of two North Korean soldiers across the Demilitarized Zone between the countries may make that impossible.
North Korea qualified for the Games with a pair of figure skaters, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, but then missed a deadline to confirm they would participate. The International Olympic Committee still could make a spot for them if North Korea says it wants to take part.
North Korea has tried to disrupt the Olympics in the past.
Thirty years ago, as South Korea was preparing to host the Summer Games in 1988, two North Korean agents planted a bomb in a Korean Airlines plane. It exploded over the Andaman Sea and killed all 115 on board. North Korea hoped the bombing would create chaos in South Korea, but instead the agents were caught. One killed himself and the other confessed, telling her interrogators that her orders came directly from Kim Il Sung or his son, Kim Jong Il, the present leader’s father.
Noerper said that he doubted North Koreans would do anything similar this time.
“In general, I don’t think many analysts are expecting any kind of overt disruption of the Games,” Noerper said. “It would isolate North Korea even more.”
He said that Kim was trying to strike a different tone than his father and that the Games are separate from the missile tests, the most recent of which took place at the end of November, marking a total of 18 since President Donald Trump took office in January.
Trump has threatened the rogue state with “fire and fury” if the tests did not stop, but a new report — unconfirmed by NBC News — has North Korea trying to load anthrax onto missiles.
And Trump, responding to Kim's New Year's Day "nuclear button" comment, fired back with his own taunt.
"Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!" Trump tweeted on Jan. 2.
Looking forward, China could have a moderating influence. It is hosting the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, would not want serious disruptions at the upcoming Games and has some influence over North Korea policy even there are limits, analysts say.
China and South Korea, which historically have had strong ties, want to repair a relationship that was damaged last year.
A November report from Reuters noted that local businesses were hoping for a surge of interest in the Games from Chinese tourists after the two countries put aside a diplomatic dispute over an anti-missile system. Chinese visitors accounted for nearly half of all foreign tourists into South Korea last year but the number dropped 61 percent from March to September compared to the same period last year, according to Reuters, citing official data.
China's Foreign Ministry said that the goal was to have the relationship back to normal “as soon as possible,” according to The Washington Post.
“I think they’ll probably exert some influence but given the level of tensions it’s probably a time for some sort of shenanigans,” Dyreson said.
He said North Korea would like to engage in the kind of espionage it is famous for: using female spies to entice athletes into disgraceful behavior, for example, or doping athletes so that they fail drug tests.
Dyreson said he would not be surprised if North Korea ramped up missile tests during the Games.
“Because frankly there’s no way the U.S. can retaliate or do anything while the U.S. team and other nations are three miles away so they’ll probably do even more taunting if that’s possible,” he said.