For six months, Dameon Myres stood tall, his eyes always peeled. His objective was to ensure some normality in a corner of the world defined by its unpredictability. Four days a week, Myres patrolled the Korean Demilitarized Zone — a border that slices across and separates North and South Korea — near Camp Bonifas, which sits a quarter mile from the DMZ.
And there, Myres, who then was a 20-year-old newly deployed U.S. Army soldier, would make his rounds to ensure there was zero activity going on in one of the world’s hottest hot spots. Myres stood guard for high-profile visits when former President Bill Clinton took a tour of the camp. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright visited, too. Even the famed Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders and rock band Blues Traveler made an appearance.
Myres’ patrol once accidentally wandered into the DMZ. Myres, now a sports information director at the University of Utah, chuckles when reliving it. They sprinted back to a safe zone, a run which he describes as, “The most scared 30 seconds of my life.”
If you’re planning on tuning into coverage of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in South Korea like Myres, there will be as much attention paid to the north of the DMZ as what’s going on in the south.
The official site of the 2018 Olympics, the mountain village of Pyeongchang, sits roughly 50 miles from the DMZ. On the other side is a land and culture still largely unknown to Western society, a regime that has closed off connections to the rest of the globe. It is led by supreme leader Kim Jong un, whose public comments have grown increasingly hostile in the years leading to South Korea’s second-ever Olympiad.
Political issues and the Olympics seem to be stuck on the same axis, a revolving door of domestic or worldwide issues brought to light before the international sporting community descends on the host nation. The ongoing discourse — or lack thereof — with North Korea regarding its upstart nuclear program is the latest talking point before the Olympic torch is lit.
Kim’s New Year’s Day speech last month featured a veiled threat that his country’s nuclear agenda was complete and that the launch button was within reach. U.S. President Donald Trump retorted with a tweet, insisting his launch button was larger and more lethal.
But while the leaders of the two countries keep trading barbs in the media and North Korea’s continued intercontinental ballistic missile testing keeps the nerve-levels heightened, the latest development ahead of the Olympics could be viewed as a crucial step forward.
Olympic athletes from North and South Korea will march under a unified flag at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in Pyeongchang, which has occurred at two previous Olympic Games (2000 and 2004).
The sides will form a joint women’s hockey team to compete in the upcoming Games, too. For Kirk Larsen, an associate professor of history at BYU who has focused on Korean politics for more than 25 years, this is “a significant development.”
“This is seen as having the potential to ratchet down the tension,” Larsen said.
Some South Koreans, however, remain skeptical of North Korea extending the olive branch.
Protesters in Seoul last week set fire to the North Korean flag as well as a photo of Kim. The South Korean public has voiced its angst regarding the joint women’s hockey team, describing the situation as unfair because South Korea is being forced to play with new teammates during an Olympics.
Is North Korea stealing the spotlight before the limelight hits?
South Koreans could be thinking “these were our Games, we organized them, we arranged them, we did everything,” Larsen said, “and now everybody is just talking about North Korea.”
American Olympians have been talking about North Korea — willingly or not — for months.
“North Korea and South Korea are competing under the same flag at these Games, so I think the Olympics are going to do what they kind of always do — unify people and maybe a side effect of that will be a little bit of positive political overflow as opposed to seeing the crazy news we’re all used to seeing,” said U.S. snowboardcross racer Jonathan Cheever, who has lived off and on in Park City since 2004.
“I’ve never felt at any Games that I shouldn’t be there,” said U.S. luger Erin Hamlin, who will be competing in her fourth Olympics in Pyeongchang. “So I have full confidence that they can do that again. I’m going to let them worry about it because that’s what they get paid to do. I’ll focus on what I can control and what I can have an impact on, which will be my performance.”
Matthew Burbank has been an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah for more than 20 years. Burbank has spent much of his time devoted to studying urban policy with an emphasis on the Olympics. He believes South Korea viewed these Olympics as another chance to host the world, like it did with the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and show how far the country has progressed in the last 30 years.
“This was intended to show, ‘Look at all the things that we’ve done, look at how strong our economy is, look at how open our society is,’” Burbank said. “One of the things that’s happened is you get the Games, you do the build-up, the political world changes, and it’s certainly happened for them. … In some ways I think now they’re looking at this as a thing we can unify around.”
To Larsen, it is impossible to understand the rationale of Kim being open to unifying before the Games because of one caveat.
“When Dennis Rodman is the person that’s had the most face time with him,” Larsen said, “you have to say, ‘We don’t know.’ For me, the really intriguing questions are what happens after [the Olympics].”
American short-track speedskater John-Henry Krueger, who will make his Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, lived and trained full time in South Korea for nearly two years before relocating to the Netherlands. He said unlike the daunting news cycle, life in Seoul was normal for a bustling metropolis. But Krueger also was asked what he expected the mood to be like in his former home just before the Games begin.
He responded, “That’s like asking me to predict the lottery.”