More than 80 nations are expected to send delegations to the PyeongChang Olympics, but it’s not known if North Korea will be one of them.
North Korean participation in sporting events held in South Korea has long been problematic given the relations between the two nations, including a North Korean boycott of the Seoul 1988 Summer Olympics.
North Korea did compete in the two Asian Games hosted by South Korea in the last 30 years, in 2002 and 2014.
The International Olympic Committee was asked last week if it had any indication that North Korea hoped to qualify and send athletes to PyeongChang in one year.
“Invitations don’t get sent until Feb. 9, which is one year to go, so difficult to know which NOCs [National Olympic Committees] will respond affirmatively, and, of course, the athletes/teams still need to qualify,” an IOC spokesperson responded via email.
North Korea’s Olympic Committee did not respond to an email seeking comment on PyeongChang 2018 participation.
It’s not a certainty that North Korea will qualify any athletes for the Winter Games. Despite winning at least four medals at every Summer Games since Seoul, it didn’t have any athletes at the Sochi Olympics and just two at Vancouver 2010.
North Korea has zero top performing international winter sports athletes and few who even appear at major competitions.
North Korean short track speed skater Choe Un Song ranks No. 136 in the world after appearing in one World Cup this season in Beijing. A pairs figure skating team is ranked No. 49. A different North Korean pairs team missed a Sochi berth by 1.5 points at the last qualifying competition.
Nations without qualified athletes are still able to enter one man and one woman in the Summer Olympics in swimming and track and field. But no such exception applies in the Winter Games.
Entry standards were tightened after British ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards made folly reels finishing last at Calgary 1988, though lower-ranked athletes can still qualify in events such as slalom in Alpine skiing.
The IOC called the possibility of specially inviting an athlete from a non-qualified nation to the Winter Olympics “a hypothetical question about a possible set of circumstances.” A spokesperson said they didn’t know if there has been a precedent.
And then there is the question of whether North Korea wants to participate in PyeongChang, regardless of if it qualifies any athletes.
“It depends on where the relationship [between the nations] is going to be in the days immediately preceding the Olympics.” said Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, a Korean Peninsula scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California. “At the moment relations aren’t great, but you wouldn’t be able to tell this far out.”
That’s because South Korea’s president is suspended from power due to ongoing impeachment proceedings. Lewis says a new leader could very well emerge in the next several months that impacts that relationship.
North and South Korea have shown solidarity at recent Olympics. The nations marched together under one flag at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Sydney and Athens. In Rio, North and South Korean gymnasts posed for a selfie together.Follow @nzaccardi