North Korea poses security risks to the Winter Olympics

Next month the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea will take place amid heightened geopolitical uncertainties on the peninsula. This presents complicated economic and security risks for visitors and foreign businesses.

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The 2018 Winter Olympic Games will take place between 9 and 25 February in South Korea’s north-eastern county of Pyeongchang in Gangwon province. The organisers are anticipating that it will be the largest Winter Olympics in history, with more than 90 countries sending around 6,000 athletes and officials to take part in the games.

Yet security concerns, ranging from cyber-attacks to the possibility of a military conflict, loom large over the games amid growing geopolitical hostility on the Korean Peninsula. As a result, France and the U.S. are among a number of countries which have threatened to withdraw from the games if Seoul cannot guarantee athletes’ safety. This report evaluates the main threats North Korea poses to foreign visitors and businesses during the games.


Seoul technically remains at war with its northern neighbour, after an armistice ended the Korean War in 1953. While bilateral relations have always been fraught, they have rapidly deteriorated over the past year in the light of a tougher U.S. approach towards the North. U.S. President Donald Trump’s bellicose rhetoric towards North Korea contributed to further destabilisation of the regional security environment, while his repeated exhortations for China to ‘get tough’ against the North appeared to have had little impact; China is historically North Korea’s largest trade partner.

While [South and North Korea] bilateral relations have always been fraught, they have rapidly deteriorated over the past year

Internationally, a Washington-led campaign to further isolate Pyongyang from the global trading system has been unsuccessful. Despite the widening and toughening of international sanctions against North Korea, international media reports revealed that more than 40 countries continue to be non-compliant. This trend is in line with A2 Global’s forecast that many countries are unwilling to enforce international sanctions against North Korea even as the sanctions regime becomes more complex.

Also read: North Korea: The myth of the hermetic republic

Furthermore, these harsh measures have failed to rein in the pace of North Korea’s missile and nuclear testing. Last year, Pyongyang continued to fire more than two dozen missiles, and appears to have also achieved significant technological advances. Last July and September, the country claims to have successfully tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and an advanced hydrogen bomb. If true, both are major developments, bringing the country ever closer to becoming the world’s ninth nuclear weapon state.

North Korean threats

Military conflict

A2 Global continues to assess that the likelihood of an inter-Korean war is a high impact, low-probability event in the six-month outlook. The primary concern for North Korea is regime survival as seen in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, which is typically a defensive approach. Therefore, it will likely seek to avoid any major armed conflict for as long as possible, reflected in its willingness to hold high-level talks with South Korea a month before the Olympics.

The primary concern for North Korea is regime survival as seen in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, which is typically a defensive approach

The more likely threat, however, is that the U.S. will undertake unilateral military action against Pyongyang. According to the Wall Street Journal and the Telegraph, Washington is contemplating a ‘limited strike’ on North Korean targets to decimate its nuclear and missile programmes, but short of an all-out war. Pyongyang is likely to regard such moves as an act of war, carrying with it the risk of a similarly hostile response.

Also read: North Korea – The real threat to East Asian commerce

Although there are no signs of a build-up of U.S. military assets near or in the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. already has potent military assets within striking range of the North, including stand-off munitions such as cruise missiles. During his first year in office, Trump demonstrated his willingness to launch sudden missile strikes on Afghanistan and Syria, but those were countries already subject to international military action.

A similar attack on North Korea would be vastly more provocative to the international community, particularly China. This limits the likelihood of Trump ordering such an action unless North Korea acts aggressively, as it did with the (contested) sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan warship and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Again, however, the North’s commitment to regime survival should ensure that Trump’s bellicose rhetoric dissuades the North from such provocations.

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