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Bilateral talks are strongest indicator of whether North Korea will carry out provocations during Olympics

8 Jan 18

South Korea will host the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics from 9 to 25 February 2018 and from 9 to 18 March 2018, respectively.

IHS Markit perspective

Outlook and implications

  • If the US-South Korea joint military exercises do not overlap with the games and if proposed talks between the North Korea and South Korea secure the attendance of a North Korean delegation to PyeongChang, a low-level attack or demonstration of North Korea's advanced weapons capabilities is unlikely.
  • Nonetheless, the increased incidence of North Korean missile launches in 2017, as well as cyber-attacks attributed to North Korea's government, poses a security risk to South Korea's hosting of the Olympics and Paralympics. The most probable provocations include a cyber-attack on government-, military-, or Olympics-related individuals/servers/websites, an incursion across the maritime boundary, artillery fire across the disputed land border, or the firing of a ballistic missile that would probably cause foreign governments to call for the evacuation of their athletes.
  • South Korea is a relatively safe country to host the Olympics: compared with other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, it has a relatively low incidence of theft and violent crimes, excluding sexual assault. Foreigners in particular are unlikely to be affected by corruption. South Korea has relatively robust and efficient infrastructure, and the games are unlikely to prompt disruptive protests or anti-government demonstrations.


Interstate war; Individuals

Sectors or assets

All, specifically: Sporting and tourism; Aviation and marine assets in the case of North Korean missile launches

Security precedent and preparations

When South Korea last hosted the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics and Paralympics, North Korea boycotted the games, and negotiations failed to secure its hosting of some of the events north of the border. In addition, North Korea allegedly downed Korean Air Flight 858 in November 1987, aiming to deter other countries' athletes from participating – according to North Korean agent Kim Hyon Hui, who was convicted of the attack that killed 115 people. However, since the 1990s, North Korea has carried out no attacks beyond the Korean Peninsula. Low-level violent incidents occur every year, especially around US-South Korea joint military exercises held during spring and autumn, but these are highly unlikely to affect civilians or commercial assets, especially beyond the de facto land border, the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).

In preparation for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, the South Korean intelligence, military, and police Special Weapons and Tactics team have hired a private security contractor specialising in cybersecurity and carried out multiple exercises simulating terrorist attacks, including those using drones (see North Korea–South Korea: 24 May 2017: North Korean missile launch further constrains South Korean president's options to reinvigorate inter-Korean dialogue, mitigate conflict risks). According to national media, South Korea's Ministry of Defence will also deploy 5,000 armed forces, more than twice as many as the 2,400 armed forces deployed when South Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with Japan.

North-South Korean relations in 2017

Throughout 2017, North Korea largely ignored South Korea, instead focusing its foreign-policy and national-security signalling on the United States. Examples include the following:

  • In his 2017 New Year's address, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un said that North Korea was close to test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
  • In August 2017, North Korean officials threatened to "envelop" Guam by simultaneously firing four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) 30–40 kilometres away from the location of large US military bases in the Asia-Pacific region, firing Hwasong-12 IRBMs over Japan into the Pacific to demonstrate a range beyond Guam in August and September 2017.
  • North Korea launched two Hwasong-14 ICBMs in July 2017 and one Hwasong-15 ICBM in November 2017, claiming that these missiles meant that all of the continental US is now within range of North Korea's nuclear weapons.

In contrast, there were no major cross-border exchanges between the North Korea and South Korea since August 2015 following the injury of two South Korean soldiers by a landmine in the DMZ. Although at least four North Korean soldiers defected across the DMZ in 2017, South Korea did not return small-arms fire in one incident, and the defections have largely been ignored by North Korea. Nonetheless, there was also no official contact between North Korea and South Korea: the first telephone call since February 2016 took place on 3 January 2018, shortly after Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in had reiterated their desire for talks to discuss a North Korean delegation participating in the PyeongChang Olympics.

Potential for security threats during Olympics and Paralympics

As an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country, South Korea is a relatively safe location. It has a relatively low incidence of theft and violent crime, excluding sex crimes that are more prevalent than the high-income country average but below the global average. Foreigners are unlikely to be affected by corruption, and there are unlikely to be disruptive protests or anti-government demonstrations during the Olympics. Visitors are at relatively low risk of contracting communicable diseases, and South Korea's emergency services and hospitals are capable and well-equipped. South Korea's robust and efficient infrastructure means that travellers are unlikely to struggle with transport during their stay.

Importantly, North Korea is unlikely to carry out a provocation (for example, launching a cyber-attack, firing artillery over the DMZ, or testing its missiles) if the US-South Korea joint military exercises do not overlap with the games and particularly if a North Korean delegation attends the Olympics. If North Korea were to use its weapons in a way that threaten the security of the Olympics, the South Korean government and security forces would act swiftly to ensure the safety of civilians and departure of foreigners, although an evacuation would probably take days at least. In addition, the military would be unlikely to retaliate immediately to mitigate the risk of escalation towards conflict.

Outlook and implications

Since 2014 in particular, North Korea has frequently launched missiles during the US-South Korea joint military exercises, which occur during spring. However, after a call on 4 January 2018, Moon and US President Donald Trump confirmed that the 2018 exercises would not coincide with the Olympics and Paralympics games. In addition, on 5 January 2018, North Korea sent a fax to South Korea accepting a proposal to meet on 9 January 2018 to discuss North Korea's participation. This will be the first high-level meeting since December 2015; although a failure of the talks would unlikely instigate a deterioration in relations, a positive outcome would be a positive indicator for the Olympics and Paralympics proceeding without an attack or weapons demonstration by North Korea.

In his New Year's address, Kim repeated North Korea's claim that it has now "perfected" its nuclear deterrent and called for the "mass-production of nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles". Therefore, future tests or demonstrations of North Korea's weapons will probably focus on these advanced capabilities, which do not pose a direct risk to South Korea – specifically medium- and long-range missile tests hundreds of kilometres from the peninsula.

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