• Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at Waikato University

Against the odds, it is now likely North Korea will participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics beginning on February 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Participation is possible because the sanctions imposed by the United Nations on North Korea cover only importation of sporting goods, not North Korean participation in global sporting events.

Through this small gap in the sanctions, success has been achieved, to which the following medals could be awarded.


The first medal should be a bronze. Although the merits of sports themselves, enhancing education, health and shared understandings based around human excellence in competition are all highly commendable, the real reason for this medal is participation.

Two weeks ago, this participation was quite unlikely, as North Korea had missed the deadline for registration for the Winter Olympics and the two sides had not talked directly to one other since December 2015.

This impasse had developed as North Korea busied itself in a flurry of tests for its long-range missiles and nuclear devices while its nemesis, the United States, promised total destruction to the regime if they kept advancing.

Although details on the exact number of athletes and events they will compete in are unresolved, the principle has been agreed that North Korea will participate and that some supporters will be allowed. The sticky points of how they will arrive and where they will stay (so they do not defect) appear to have been settled with agreement they could stay in a South Korean cruise ship just off the coast.

A silver medal is possible if the games go well and the two sides move to a further round of discussions about defusing border tension. Prospects for this medal are already good as complimentary confidence-building measures are already being undertaken.

On the North Korean side, the hotline is back on, reconnecting the two countries with instant and direct communication. On the other side, the Americans have agreed to abide by the traditional truce of the Olympics in which, during the period of the games, there will be no military exercises.

The real success needed if a silver medal is to be awarded will be to turn the confidence-building measures into permanent fixtures, and supplement them with the same protocols which prevented the Cold War from turning hot. Namely, advance warning of missile and nuclear tests, and no flyovers or impacts in or over the other's territory without their consent.

This should be matched by inclusion of foreign observers in all military exercises. In both instances, the goal is so that the opposition are not startled into an accidental nuclear war.


If a gold medal is to be awarded, it will be due to agreement to start talking about the wrongful possession of nuclear weapons that North Korea currently holds, and ways to remove them before the risks of nuclear war increase further.

This will be the most difficult medal to secure, as North Korea has made it clear such matters are not up for negotiation, while the United States believes this is the only matter really worth focusing upon.

Although the first successes for bronze and potential silver should be applauded, caution is merited. If things go wrong between now and the end of the Winter Olympics, North Korea could respond angrily.

The last time this anger occurred was 30 years ago when attempts for North and South Korea to jointly host the 1988 Summer Olympics failed after North Korea could not secure the amount of events it wanted held in its territory.

From this failure, North Korea directed the terrorism that was responsible for the destruction of Korean Flight 858 in 1987 which killed 115 civilians.

If things go wrong now, expect another nuclear or missile test. Whether Trump would turn the other cheek if hit with a further provocation is unknown.