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Foreign Policy

Could the Seoul-Pyongyang 2032 Summer Olympics Become a Reality?

Sep 26, 2018

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One of the bolder announcements by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un at the recent inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang was the decision to make a joint bid to co-host the 2032 Summer Olympic Games.

Hosting the Olympics is a daunting undertaking for a developed country, let alone a developing one like North Korea. The United Kingdom spent nearly £8.8 billion ($11.5 billion) to host the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, nearly four times the original estimated budget of £2.4 billion ($3.15 billion). There are also no guarantees that the 150,000 screaming spectators that Moon received at the mass games during his visit to Pyongyang will show up for the Olympic Games in North Korea.

However, the story of a Korean Peninsula moving towards genuine peace would likely be a compelling choice for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) when the bidding process takes place, but a less conclusive process could yield stiff competition for the 2032 Summer Games. It is still early, but India, Indonesia, and Australia have all suggested that they may be angling to host the Games as well. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) may not make its decision on the 2032 Games until 2025, but a joint bid by South and North Korea will raise questions about inter-Korean relations and North Korea’s nuclear program, the cost of the event, infrastructure, press freedom, and human rights, as well as the opportunities a joint Korean Olympics might hold.  

Of course, any viable joint Korean bid for the Olympics will require the current nuclear and inter-Korean peace process to move forward. While there has been discussion of North Korea dismantling its nuclear and missile programs by the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s first term, realistically the process could take up to 15 years. This means that any successful bid will need to be underpinned by genuine steps to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, as well as the continued development of inter-Korean relations.

Despite its compelling narrative, the joint Korean bid will also face challenges beyond the state of inter-Korean relations and the dismantlement of North Korea’s weapons programs. Cost will be a significant factor. The 2012 London Games were not unique in their cost overruns: every Olympics since the 1960 Summer Games in Rome has experienced the same. Though not to the same extent as London, the recent Winter Games in Pyeongchang also ran over budget. Originally estimated to cost between $3.5-$9.5 billion, the Games ended up costing $12.9 billion. Further, the most recent Summer Games in Rio ran more than 50% over budget. Subsequent spending on infrastructure and pollution cleanup raised the total cost to $13.1 billion.

Any joint bid should be expected to be expensive and host countries should brace themselves for excess costs, as well as inevitable questions about whether the money could be better spent rebuilding the country, and whether South Korean tax payers should be footing the bill (North Korea would be unlikely to cover much of the cost). Because many Olympic facilities are underused after the Games, they provide a lower return on investment than the types of major infrastructure projects North Korea will need. In his first meeting with Moon, Kim discussed the dilapidated condition of roads in North Korea. Basic transport infrastructure as well as housing and facilities would need to be built, to IOC standards. Upgrades would be needed to accommodate cellular networks and the internet access necessary for the press and spectators.

To address concerns about whether money spent on the Olympics would be better spent rebuilding North Korea’s infrastructure, any joint bid would need to carefully divide the sports hosted by the two countries to minimize the need for expensive new facilities in North Korea and seek to integrate new construction into essential infrastructure to rebuild North Korea’s economy. Integrating the design of the Games into North Korea’s economic redevelopment will be difficult: even cities like London that tried to use the Olympics to spur redevelopment have faced challenges.

A successful Olympic bid will also mean a flood of foreigners into North Korea, including the press. For a country as closed as North Korea, this could present unique challenges. More than 8 million tickets were sold for the 2012 London Games, and 6 million for the Rio Games. While many fans will buy tickets for multiple events, even if only 20% of the events were in North Korea, a conservative estimate might be that lodging, food and transportation would be needed for 600,000 spectators and athletes in North Korea – a destination woefully short on the types of hotels, restaurants, and bars that many would expect.

One way to integrate the Olympics into North Korea’s economic development might be South Korea’s idea of developing a tourism belt along North Korea’s east coast. If outdoor sports such as the triathlon, rowing, canoeing, and archery were held in North Korea, efforts to develop the infrastructure for the tourism belt could be tied into the Olympic bid; thus marrying long-term economic development with the short term needs of the Olympics. The hotels and restaurants needed to develop tourism could be used to house and feed the athletes and spectators during the Olympics.

While there may be a way to accommodate athletes and spectators, journalists from around the world will require a degree of openness not generally seen in a country where communications and information are kept under tight control. Any bid will likely also face opposition in light of North Korea’s human rights record. While human rights have been a concern in awarding the Games to China and other countries, in the absence of notable progress on human rights issues, North Korea’s system of prison camps could be a critical obstacle for some IOC members.

While there are many challenges for a joint Korean bid, there are also opportunities. Should the Games come to the Korean peninsula in 2032, North Koreans will be increasingly exposed to foreigners, and several prospects exist to integrate long-term economic development into the Games. Though expectations that the Olympics will spur significant changes should be tempered given that economic development does not always spur political reform, the spotlight of the Olympics could serve as an additional incentive for North Korea to address concerns about its weapons programs. If North Korea has taken significant strides to dismantle its nuclear program and inter-Korean relations are on a strong footing by 2025, a joint Korean bid will be attractive to the IOC. Perhaps the real question is, what steps will Kim Jong-un be willing to take to ensure that the world comes to Pyongyang in 2032?

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