With tensions rising between the U.S. and North Korea, here's what travelers need to know.
While most of the world looks forward to seeing nations compete for the gold in the Olympics every few years, this year’s 2018 Winter Games have been somewhat shrouded by simmering fear and doubt over the safety of the games’ proceedings in South Korea. The Olympics, scheduled for Feb. 9-25, will take place in Pyeongchang, a city only 50 miles away from the demilitarized zone that separates South Korea from North Korea.
Due to the current political climate — one in which President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have had a number of heated exchanges relating to the threat of nuclear war — some Americans are left feeling that increased tensions between the countries could make for an uncomfortable or even dangerous situation at the games.
Will the U.S. Participate in the Games?
Safety concerns were furthered back in December when the American envoy to the United Nations, Nikki R. Haley, said that it was an “open question” whether American athletes would be able to participate in the Winter Games because of recent tensions. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, however, tweeted shortly after, assuring the nation that America looked forward to participating and would make safety at the games a top priority.
The New York Times also notes that Mark Jones, a spokesman for the United States Olympic Committee, has said the possibility of American athletes sitting out the games was never even discussed.
“We have not had any discussions, either internally or with our government partners, about the possibility of not taking teams to the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games,” Jones said in a statement. “We plan on supporting two full delegations in Pyeongchang.”
What Do Travelers Need to Know?
While tensions with North Korea are still a concern as the U.S. moves into 2018, the U.S. Department of State and Pyeogchang Organizing Committee have not posted any substantial safety warnings related to Americans traveling to the games.
When asked if travelers should be aware of any safety concerns or take any extra precautions at the games, a spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee stated, “We continue to be in constant contact with the South Korean government. We have been informed that the position of the South Korean government with regard to security at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 has not changed. We are working with the Organising Committee on the preparations of these Games which continue to be on track.”
The Washington Post also notes that many experts agree an attack will likely not happen during the games, although a minimal threat of large-scale action or attack exists for all iterations of the Olympics due to the scale of the events and sizes of the crowds.
Still, media coverage of U.S. tensions with North Korea may have done its part to scare some possible visitors away, with Time reporting that the games had sold just 55 percent of their targeted number of tickets as of Dec. 10.
Will North Korea Attend the Games?
While we know that two North Korean athletes, figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, have qualified for the games, it’s still unclear whether or not the country will participate in the games. However, a recent development in North and South Korean relations could put some travelers and participants at ease.
On the first of the year, Kim Jung-un himself suggested that the two countries meet to discuss the easing of military tensions and North Korea’s participation in the games. South Korea then proposed holding high level talks between the countries on the border on Tuesday, Jan. 9. If North Korea responds positively to this proposal, the talks will mark the first official dialogue between them in two years, and could bode well for the future of the games.
President Moon Jae-in of South Korea has long been urging North Korea to participate in the games and is hopeful that Kim Jung-un’s recent remarks could point to the start of reconciliation around the Olympics. Successful talks could have a positive impact on ticket sales and visitor numbers as well.