Let's Hope Seattle Avoids Korean Olympics Fallout

The Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea begin this week, and it's been a volatile time on the peninsula.
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It’s hard not to think about North Korea these days. The possibility of a nuclear attack is certainly on people’s minds, even though the chances of a missile hitting Seattle is remote (sorry. Ann Coulter).

Still, in Olympia, some legislators have sought to remove barriers against preparing for such an event. With President Donald Trump trading tweets about who has the biggest nuclear button and the recent false alarm in Hawaii, minds can be a bit unsettled.

The upcoming Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea are a happy event that will take place under a bit of a cloud (hopefully not a mushroom one). Will it be a chance for further reconciliation between the two Koreas? Or an opportunity for increased tension or terror?

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Washington state resident, was in Seattle this week as part of a speaker’s series and said that he thinks the Trump administration’s tougher stance on North Korea’s nuke capabilities is a positive thing, especially pressuring China to deal with it, though he emphasized that his experience with Iraq and Afghanistan has led him to believe that war should only be a very last-resort action. It’s very easy to start wars, he said, but really hard to end them.

The rising Korean temperature brings to my mind experiences in the last decade. I have not been to North Korea, but I have seen it. In 2012, I went to a world’s fair in Yeosu, South Korea, then took a day trip up to the DMZ where you can see North Korea. The barriers there are very real and separate two distinct realities. South Korea’s hills are green and tree-covered; North Korea’s are brown and stripped of timber. A fake town in the North lights up at night to make it look like things are bustling on the other side. It doesn’t fool anyone.

One of the most shocking things was on the south side of the border. On the freeway up to the DMZ, not far outside Seoul, were giant concrete “overpasses” that in fact are anti-tank barriers which can be blown up to block road access to the south. At the DMZ, there are barbed wire fences, watchtowers and mine fields.

We took a tour of a deep, narrow tunnel that the North Koreans had dug under the DMZ so they could move troops or infiltrators south. A number of such tunnels have been found and shut down. The North Koreans painted the humid walls of these tunnels black and, when caught, insisted they were “coal mines.”  The “coal” rubs off on your fingers. Talk about fake news.

The DMZ is a bizarre place, a tourist attraction staffed by soldiers. It’s a surreal armed camp, and a stage for propaganda.

Two years previously, I had visited an expo in Shanghai, China where the North Koreans, for the first time ever, had a pavilion. It was very strange, with fountains featuring cherubs and a counter selling books of film criticism by then dictator Kim Jong Il who once kidnapped a South Korean film director to boost his country’s moviemaking. The pavilion’s motto: “Paradise of People.”

It’s easy to get distracted by the apparent nuttiness of the situation, but the human rights condition and the fear-generating potential of a tense standoff on the Korean Peninsula that could go global are real.

The Winter Olympics will be taking place in the shadow of this reality—and surreality. I hope instead of confrontation the games point in the direction of positive progress that won’t necessitate a new craze for fallout shelters in the Northwest.

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