The Olympics are known for bringing the world together. They unite people of all demographic backgrounds and nationalities around sport.
While most people are focused on the sports, world leaders are focused on the politics. This is especially true of the host country. If they are smart, the host country will use the world stage to promote their strategic narrative. A strategic narrative is constructed by political actors to form a shared meaning of international politics. An example of this is President Trump’s “America First”.
South Korea hosted the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. They used their platform and the opening ceremony to promote their image as a major player (pun intended) in the international arena. However, they weren’t the only ones. Since the best part of the Olympics is the competition, let’s keep score of the narrative competition.
The First Quarter: Pre-Olympic events
North Korea and South Korea got a lead early on. By choosing to unite and form a joint women’s hockey team each promoted the narrative they wanted to dominate the Games. In a time where tensions with their Northern neighbor were high, South Korea presented themselves as a mediator and key player on the international stage. +1 point South Korea
Joining the South Koreans, North Korea presented itself as cooperative and willing to participate in the international arena. This was important on multiple levels. First, forming a team with the South Koreans helped form a relationship and cut tensions (at least briefly) on the peninsula. Second, it sent a message to the international community that North Korea is willing to participate in international events. Third, the new story gave North Korea positive media coverage. +3 points North Korea.
The United States spent the time up to the Olympics threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” and referring to Kim Jong-un as “little rocket man”. -1 points United States.
The Second Quarter: The Opening Ceremony
South Korea put on an elaborate opening ceremony. The event depicted the history and culture of the host. It reminded the world that South Korea is a legitimate player on the international stage. Again, South Korea portrayed its role as a mediator when a South Korean and North Korean athlete carried the torch to the Olympic flame together. +2 points South Korea.
North Korea gained media coverage by sending Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong to attend the ceremony. Again, pairing with South Korea assisted the North in international reputation. +2 points North Korea.
The Trump administration sent Vice President Mike Pence to represent the US at the ceremony. Pence made the news cycle for snubbing Kim Yo-jong. -1 points United States.
South Korea +3
North Korea: +5
United States: -2
The Third Quarter: During the Games
South Korean athletes performed well with their home-court advantage. Overall, they came in sixth in the medal count. The performed especially well in speed skating and short track. Off the court, South Korea also succeeded. Between attending the competition, President Moon held diplomatic talks which ended with North Korea being willing to sit down and further discuss its nuclear situation. +2 points South Korea
North Korea did not perform well but did gain media attention for its unique cheering section. Also by engaging in diplomatic discussion with the South they appeared more reasonable than President Trump portrayed. +1 point North Korea
The United States performed well placing fourth in the medal count. However, any diplomatic action occurring at the Olympics was over shadowed by domestic news of was overshadowed by the resignation of Rob Porter and the democratic memo on FBI surveillance of the Trump campaign. These cancel out, 0 points United States.
The Fourth Quarter: The Closing Ceremony to Today
South Korea hosted a successful Olympics. Media coverage was generally positive and did a good job of spreading the narrative of unity and South Korea as an international actor. After the Games a delegation from South Korea met with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. The Olympics and this meeting set the stage for the current condition of relations. + 2 points South Korea.
North Korea successfully participated in an international arena. They may not have won any medals but they were successful in the diplomatic arena. They created a new narrative portraying themselves as rational actors. Since the Games they have met with South Korea and have agreed to meet with President Trump. This has caused the US to switch to a more diplomatic approach and President Trump to soften his tone. +2 points North Korea.
The United States big play came late in the game. A softer approach and assistance from South Korea led to the current situation. Until the outcome says otherwise, the possibility of a meeting between Kim Jong-un and President Trump should be counted as a positive. As of early this week Mike Pompeo, current CIA director and future Secretary of State, had met with the Kim Jong-Un +2 point United States.
South Korea: +7
North Korea: +8
United States: 0
South Korea used their arena(s) to remind the world of their relevancy. Not only with gold medals and K-Pop performances, but with strategic diplomatic action. Acting as a unifier, and using the Olympics to discuss greater issues with visiting representatives, opening the door for further discussion. The home team was only beat by their neighbor to the north.
North Korea won the Olympic narrative game because they were able to change their image. They went from being portrayed as a rogue nation to being cooperative. The media still cited the strict nature of the state, but it came as an afterthought. Successfully changing their narrative and setting themselves up to continue this route in the future was a winning game plan.
The United States lost because it did not take advantage of the Olympic stage like its competitors did. However, it should not be counted out. Its success will be determined by the outcome of the next meeting in the form of diplomatic talks, or lack thereof.
Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.