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On September 30, 1981, members of the International Olympic Committee, meeting in Baden-Baden, Germany, to select the host city of the 1988 Summer Olympics, unexpectedly voted (52 to 27) to award the Games to Seoul, upsetting the only other candidate, Nagoya. Plagued for some years by various problems, ranging from insolvency (Montreal, 1976) to boycott (Montreal, 1976 and Moscow, 1980), the Games were at the low ebb of their international popularity, which was one reason why the Baden-Baden decision drew only cursory attention of the international media. While socialist countries protested, few others, with the exception of South Korea, where the vote set off jubilant celebrations took notice—except perhaps for those who read as far as the H-section (World News) of The Washington Post, which cautiously commented on October 4: “South Korea's successful bid to host the 1988 summer Olympics in Seoul appears to have moved the country's leadership a step closer to goals of enhancing its image internationally and consolidating political power at home.”[2]

In retrospect, the Washington Post piece was mildly put. But who could have made a better prediction? In 1981 South Korea suffered from economic woes and political instability. Less than two years earlier, General Chun Doo-hwan had seized power in a coup d’état, and soon presided over a massacre of student demonstrators in Gwangju and the imprisonment of the opposition activist Kim Dae-jung. South Korea, by then far more prosperous than its Communist nemesis in the north, was not a member of the United Nations, and had no diplomatic relations with the socialist bloc. It existed in a state of a permanent war-scare: armed yet insecure, menaced by the militant North and by restive domestic opponents of the undemocratic regime. Under these circumstances, it was anyone’s guess how the Games would turn out; after all, in 1981, the Olympics were still seven years away, and seven years was an eternity in a place as unsettled as the Korean Peninsula. 

The issue came to the fore only after the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, which were boycotted by the USSR and a number of socialist countries in revenge for the earlier Western boycott of the Soviet Olympics in 1980. With the Seoul Games up next, the North Korean leadership had to come up with a viable policy to make the best out of what could potentially turn out to be a public relations coup for South Korea. Soviet support was essential in this endeavor, because Moscow’s boycott (and, as a bonus, a boycott by most other socialist countries) would go a long way towards delegitimizing the Games. If the boycott was also supported by a number of Third World countries—not impossible, given that North Korea pulled weight in the Third World—and if the radical sections of the South Korean populace could be mobilized to stage disruptive protests, Pyongyang could yet turn the tables on the South and win from the ruin of the Games. We do not know if this was how North Korean leader Kim Il Sung assessed the situation. If it was, it helps to explain why in 1983-84 Kim began to a rapprochement with the Soviets after keeping his distance from the USSR for more than a decade.

However, instead of calling for the outright boycott of the Seoul Games, the North Koreans developed a more sophisticated policy. By 1985 they were proposing to share the Games between North and South Korea, with 50 percent held in Seoul, and 50 percent in Pyongyang. This plan was met with enthusiastic support in Cuba. Indeed, Cuba was more consistent than any other country in backing Pyongyang’s proposals. Documents in this collection help to understand why. Fidel Castro felt cheated out of the right to host the Pan-American Games in 1987 in place of Ecuador (Indianapolis was ultimately selected as the venue). Fidel’s support for Kim Il Sung in the dispute over the Seoul Olympics thus complemented his own set of grievances about the state of the international Olympic movement (Documents 1, Document 2, Document 35). One way or another, Cuba’s position was a problem for other socialist countries, not least the USSR, which was partly shamed by Castro into lukewarm support for North Korea (Document 8).

At the outset, Pyongyang’s idea seemed reasonable, even inspirational. Korea was a divided nation. Shared Games could symbolically help overcome this division, improve security, and assure maximum participation. The Games could perhaps jump-start inter-Korean dialogue and serve the cause of détente on the peninsula. In calling for shared Games, North Korea placed the South in a difficult situation, for, by refusing to agree to Pyongyang’s proposal, the South Koreans would expose themselves to criticism for intransigence, and to the possibility of a boycott. This begs the question: were the North Koreans from the outset determined to ruin the Games, and only sought a convenient pretext to do so, or were they genuinely interested in sharing the Games, and in doing so basking in Seoul’s Olympic glory? Documents in this collection are unclear on this issue but they do suggest considerable flexibility in North Korea’s tactics from 1985 through 1988. It may well have been that Kim Il Sung was open to both possibilities: ruining the Games or sharing the Games. In the end, he was outmaneuvered on both counts.

Document 5, a report by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Vice President Ashwini Kumar to North Korea in July 1985, offers a snapshot of the opening moves in what would develop into a complex multi-player, multi-level game, which led in due course to Pyongyang’s spectacular defeat. The positions were clear and apparently irreconcilable. The IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch had set the parameters for talks with North Korea: “the Games cannot be split between the two countries.” However, the North Koreans were told, “in the interest of peace and harmony, the IOC would agree to the two teams marching consecutively in the Opening Ceremony and perhaps also exhibit during the Games symbols of unity between the two Koreans in cultural activities such as singing, dance, drama and exhibitions.” This position, Kumar reported, “did not impress Mr. Kim [head of the North Korean National Olympic Committee] and he pressed his own point in a very determined manner.” This point was elaborated by the First Vice President of the DPRK Pak Seongcheol (Park Song Ch’ol)who told Kumar that North Korea could only attend the Games “with dignity” if three demands were satisfied: the Olympics were organized jointly; the events were equally shared by the two sides, and the appellation of Games were changed to “Korea Pyongyang Seoul Olympic Games.”

In his conversation with Kumar, Pak resorted to implied and explicit threats should the North Korean demands be ignored: these included the prospect of an “accidental error that would have disastrous effects on the peaceful celebrations of the Games,” and allusions to “wide-spread violence and unrest in South Korea.” Pak “ominously declared that the course of events would definitely take a violent turn in case the situation was not diffused.” These of course were not empty threats and Kumar, as well as Samaranch, would have understood that North Korea had the capability to turn the Games into a bloodbath. Kumar concluded that the IOC should depart from the principled line laid down by Samaranch and at least entertain some concessions to North Korea if the South was agreeable, “as it is bound to be.” This would, Kumar wrote to Samaranch, “completely isolate North Korea if it later walks out on the Games.” As all of the three parties (North Korea, South Korea and the IOC) had reasons not to appear intransigent, trilateral talks began in Lausanne in October 1985.

Before the talks began, in late August 1985, Samaranch and the President of the Seoul Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC), and the South Korean president-to-be, Roh Tae-woo, discussed how they should handle the North Koreans in Lausanne (Document 9). Their meetings were part of a closely coordinated effort to build up a common front against Pyongyang. In theory, the IOC posed as an impartial mediator in the dispute between the South and the North; in practice, the IOC and the SLOOC worked together to Pyongyang’s detriment. It is interesting, for example, that Samaranch actually discouraged Roh Tae-woo from offering too many concessions to North Korea, telling him that “in the case that the IOC pretends  to ask the Republic of Korea to allow more than two sports to be held in north Korea, the Republic of Korea may make the gesture of refusing the IOC proposal.” Samaranch’s idea was spelled out in the same document with remarkable clarity: “It may be almost impossible for north Korea to agree to hold preliminary elimination contests for the proposed sports, as that would seem to make the city of Pyongyang one of the cities of the Republic of Korea.” But the IOC would make the proposal nonetheless, as this “may prove helpful in encouraging the socialist countries to participate… If the meeting bears no fruit, north Korea will be completely isolated.” In this context, Samaranch’s comments, at the IOC meeting in Lausanne on October 8, 1985 (Document 13), to the effect that the “IOC was trying to find the best conditions that could be offered by the NOC [National Olympic Committee] of the Republic of Korea under which the [DPRK] could fully participate in the Games” can be construed as disingenuous, and even deliberately misleading.

The first round of talks (Document 13) showed just how far the SLOOC/IOC and the North Korean positions were from each other. The DPRK delegation, “in the spirit of fervent compatriotic love,” insisted on being given the right to stage eleven events in full and on renaming the Games in line with Pak’s earlier explanations to Kumar. The ROK delegation stuck to the conservative proposals Samaranch had earlier elaborated to Roh Tae-woo, announcing its readiness “to consider” the allocation of several handball and volleyball preliminaries to the North. No agreement was reached on this occasion.

Documents 16-Document 23, which partially cover the second round of talks in Lausanne (January 8-9, 1986), and the subsequent exchanges between the IOC and the North Korean Olympic Committee, should be read in conjunction with Richard Pound’s Five Rings Over Korea, which was itself based, practically verbatim, on these documents.[3] But one issue neither these documents nor, indeed, Pound’s account, adequately explains is how the IOC went from its humble offer of giving Pyongyang preliminaries in four sports plus one complete sport (a concession apparently wrestled away from South Korea at these very talks)[4] to an apparent readiness to allow North Koreans to stage three complete events: football, table tennis and archery (Document 21). Some “informal” discussions to this effect were held on January 9 between North Korea and the IOC Vice President Alexandru Siperco, and Samaranch confirmed the offer in another informal meeting on January 15, with the reservations that the international sports federations concerned would have to agree to this first. All that was required from the North at that stage was to say “yes” to participation in the Games.

The North Koreans should have jumped at the chance to seal at least a rudimentary agreement with the IOC then and there, especially that Samaranch even went as far as to offer that, for those events held in Pyongyang, the Games could be called “24th Olympic Games in Pyongyang” (Document 21). Weeks earlier, the IOC would not even entertain this idea. This was North Korea’s missed opportunity—one of several missed opportunities in the run-up to 1988—to make the best out of a very unfavorable situation. Instead, the North Koreans, displaying the self-defeating stubborn attitude so characteristic of DPRK diplomacy in general, continued to press for better terms, even though  time was certainly not on their side. That said, they did retreat at the January 1986 talks from their initial maximalist demands, now asking for only eight sports—or a third of the Games. By March 1986 (Document 23), the North Koreans were asking for only six sports, and there is indirect evidence (Document 25) that they were willing to go as low as five by April. Yet, they were at a distinct disadvantage vis-à-vis the South and the IOC, the longer the talks were drawn out.

By April 1986 the South Koreans could say with greater confidence that a socialist boycott of the Games would be averted; by all indications—although by then no firm commitments had been made—the Soviet Union and China both intended to send athletes to the Seoul Games. Samaranch had long suspected that, at least in relation to the USSR. Document 8 shows that during Samaranch’s visit to Moscow in the summer of 1985—that is, before the talks with North Korea even began—the Soviets made it clear that “they are ready to take part in the Games” and “they are not worried regarding the position of North Korea.” The IOC had shared these revelations with the South Koreans who, we must assume, were reassured by this information, which, incidentally, would have dissuaded the ROK from undue generosity in early talks with the North about sharing the Games.

A further indication that the USSR would not boycott the Games was that small groups of Soviet athletes actually visited Seoul on several occasions in 1985.[5]  In March, twelve Soviet figure skaters toured South Korea—reportedly on the first ever visit by Soviet athletes to this country.[6]  Another team came down for the World Judo Championships in September 1985: one Soviet judoka, featherweight Iurii Sokolov, took gold.[7]  An archery team took part in the World Championships the following month—Irina Soldatova returned home with a champion’s title.[8]  Soviet boxers were in Seoul for the World Cup in November 1985.[9]  Ranking international sports officials traveling on Soviet passports—Iurii Chesnokov of the International Volleyball Federation and Iurii Titov of the International Gymnastics Federation—stopped over in Seoul for various reasons and made positive comments about the Seoul Games, and the prospects of Soviet participation.[10]  Finally, in April 1986 Marat Gramov, the head of the Soviet Olympic Committee turned up in Seoul for a big meeting of National Olympic Committees, a sure sign that the USSR was leaning towards participation in the Games.[11]  In fact, we now know something that Samaranch could only suspect in early 1986: by January of that year, the Soviet leadership had concluded that, as Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze put it, “a boycott of the Olympic Games is unrealistic. It can bury the entire Olympic movement.”[12]  Quite apart from that, as Shevardnadze would have known, such a boycott would bury Soviet hopes of hosting the 1996 Winter Olympics in Leningrad.[13]

It was also increasingly obvious that Kim Il Sung could not count on China’s support. By June 1986 the Chinese announced their decision to participate in the Asian Games in Seoul (these took place later that year).[14]  The successful staging of the Asian Games became a promising indication that all would be well two years later. Even before that, in November 1985, Deng Xiaoping privately dispelled Kim’s illusions that China would boycott the Olympic movement, because it was hoping to host the Games in 2000.[15]  The Chinese were privately exasperated with the North Korean intransigence and their failure to consult. As the top Chinese sports official Li Menghua put it in a serious understatement, “we have solidarity and friendship with [North] Korea. But our opinions often do not coincide.”[16]  For his part, the Great Leader probably vented his anger at the Chinese in talks with the Soviets: an internal Soviet report (dated December 10, 1985) noted that “the [North] Korean leadership is rightly furious with Beijing, whose statements in support of the DPRK contradict its behind-the-scenes ties with Seoul.”[17]

The writing was on the wall—it certainly was for President Chun Doo-hwan. One of the most remarkable documents in the IOC collection is Samaranch’s memorandum of his meeting with Chun on April 19, 1986 (Document 25). In the meeting, Samaranch sought Chun’s agreement to the prospect of offering “two or three” sports to North Korea (this suggests that his earlier offer of three sports, including football, to the North, had not been coordinated with Seoul). Chun warned Samaranch not to be taken in by the North Korean threats.

It is true that [North] Korea has more arms than we have but they do not have the means to fight against us and the US forces based in my country. President Kim Il-Sung knows that he cannot attack us and I know it and he knows that I know it. Neither the USSR nor China will allow North Korea to attack South Korea. North Korea is not in a position to attack us. […] The problem of the danger of war depends on whether the USSR is inclined to fight against the United States in my region. I can assure you that that country does not want war either. Without the support of these two countries, North Korea can do absolutely nothing and if it were to do something, that would be an act of self-destruction. If they want a fight, they would have it, but it would be suicide on their part.

This confidence on Chun’s part, based on realpolitik assumptions about what his rival in the North and its allies (China and the USSR) could and could not do in the broader context of the regional Cold War, hampered accommodation with Pyongyang. If Kim Il Sung, in reality, was a paper tiger, it was not necessary to bend over backwards to make concessions.

In another meeting with Samaranch, on April 25, 1986 (Document 26), Chun Doo Hwan elaborated his views of North Korea in a brutally frank matter, which betrayed no real propensity towards compromise solutions. “You must be very careful,” he said. “It is impossible to expect goodwill or cooperation on their part… if one gives one finger to North Korea, they will take the whole hand.” It is clear from the record that Chun was unhappy over what he increasingly perceived as Samaranch’s weak-kneed acquiescence to North Korean demands. However, both Chun and Samaranch appeared to be on the same page in terms of their overall aims. Indeed, following Chun’s agreement to share two sports with North Korea, the IOC President said that he found that it was “a very good solution, because it leaves North Korea with the responsibility of saying no.” He went on to elaborate the ploy: “It is difficult for me to think that North Korea can open its borders to more than ten thousand journalists and to all the members of the Olympic family.” Chun concurred in the assessment, telling Samaranch that he only acceded to his request “so that I [Samaranch] can demonstrate to the socialist countries that I have been able to obtain a positive result from South Korea.”

The North Koreans were playing an equally sophisticated game. Before the third round of talks in Lausanne that June, they sought Soviet support. Kim Il Sung dispatched a leading functionary of the Korean Worker’s Party, Hwang Jang-yeop (who would later defect to Seoul), to persuade the Soviets to back Pyongyang’s demands. Document 27, a memorandum of Hwang’s conversation with Mikhail Gorbachev’s close confidant and CC CPSU Secretary Aleksandr Yakovlev, offers a rare glimpse into the dynamics of North Korea’s relationship with one of its main allies. Hwang hoped that the Soviet Union would issue a public statement: “the Soviet comrades could, for instance, declare that if the proposal of the DPRK about joint organization of the Games were not accepted, the Olympic Movement would face a dangerous crisis, that the South Korean side must shoulder full responsibility for the separatist holding of the Olympic Games in Seoul.”

Hwang’s comments suggest two possibilities, both of which have already been alluded to above. First, the North Koreans really did want to participate in the Games, and counted on the Soviet help in bringing pressure to bear on the IOC and South Korea. Or, the North Korean appeal could have been a tactical trick to lure the Soviets into making an unconditional commitment to Pyongyang so that the latter could make unreasonable demands on the IOC and ruin the talks in the expectation of a Soviet boycott. Such line of reasoning is suggested by Hwang’s allusions to the imperative of “ruining the enemy’s ploy to organize Olympics in Seoul.” On the other hand, there is also evidence for the opposite point of view—that the North Koreans wanted to participate. Indeed, Hwang told Yakovlev that “we do not strive to ruin the 24th Olympic Games and our demands are quite timid.” He added: “We would like to hold competitions in Pyongyang in 3-4 sports.”

Hwang’s last comment is particularly interesting, because as late as April, the North Koreans apparently insisted on a minimum of five sports (Document 25). Samaranch had earlier offered them three sports, so, at the face of it, the two sides were very close to an agreement, that is, if Hwang Jang-yeop actually meant what he said. It seems more likely (in view of subsequent developments) that he simply meant to impress Yakovlev with Pyongyang’s supposedly reasonable stand in order to extract that much needed commitment from the USSR. On this point, Yakovlev was not forthcoming. He told Hwang outright that there was no question of the Soviet Union boycotting the Games. The only thing that the North Koreans managed to obtain from the Soviet comrades was a general expression of support in the form of a letter from the head of the Soviet National Olympic Committee, Marat Gramov, to Samaranch on June 5, 1986: “I am not fully familiar with the details of the talks between the National Olympic Committees of the DPRK and South Korea under the auspices of the IOC… but I firmly believe that the conduct of the Games in the North and in the South is possible.”[18]  This was far short of what the North Koreans had expected, and if this was what Samaranch called, on June 11, “great pressure from the NOCs of socialist countries” (Document 28), then one should say he seriously exaggerated.

If the pressure was that great, Samaranch would have not done what he did during the third round of talks in Lausanne, on June 10-11, 1986 (Document 28), when he apparently went back on the earlier informal offer to the North Koreans. Specifically, rather than allowing the North to host the entire football tournament, Samaranch said he would be willing to let them have only “a part” of it (this came in addition to two full sports – table tennis and archery). The North Koreans noticed the discrepancy: “Mr. Chin [of the DPRK] insisted that his NOC wished to hold the entire football tournament commenting that it had been his Committee’s understanding that the IOC would grant it the right to do so.” In response, Samaranch said that “he had never stated that the NOC of the DPR of Korea would be able to hold the entire football tournament.” (Document 14 suggests that Samaranch was not entirely truthful on this score; however, by this stage, the South Koreans had dug in their heels, and Samaranch would have been hard-pressed to get them to agree even to share even a fraction of the football tournament.)

The North Koreans who had come to Lausanne with the proposal to host six sports—a non-starter at this stage, and a far cry from Hwang’s earlier reference to three to four sports —appeared to have realized half way through the talks that they had to make concessions. In what appeared to be a trial balloon, the head of the North Korean NOC, Kim Yu-sun, suddenly said that if the IOC could agree that Pyongyang have its own organizing committee for the sports it hosted, and if the events in Pyongyang were called “the 24th Olympic Games in Pyongyang” (something the IOC had already informally approved), “the issue of the events could be settled.” Was this North Korea actually agreeing, in formal talks, to the IOC proposal? This was how Samaranch interpreted Kim’s remarks:

The President believed the NOC had confirmed the IOC’s offer regarding the sports to be staged in the DPR of Korea provided the IOC agreed to the denomination “Games of the XXIVth Olympiad in Pyongyang,” to the setting of a separate Organizing Committee in Pyongyang […].

Kim evaded the question. Samaranch pressed the point.

The President had understood from what Mr. Kim had previously stated that if the IOC agreed to support the suggestion by the NOC of DPR of Korea to call those sports and events held in the DPR of Korea “Games of the XXIVth Olympiad in Pyongyang” and to set up a separate [Organizing Committee], the NOC would be ready to accept the IOC’s offer.

This was the moment of truth. With tensions running high, “Mr. Kim requested time for his delegation to meet alone.” After ten minutes, the meeting resumed but, alas:

Mr. Kim stressed that at previous meeting the IOC had stated that it would give the NOC three full sports to organize. However, at the current meeting, the IOC was proposing two full sports only. Mr. Kim underlined that his NOC required further time to study the proposal regarding sports and events both seriously and carefully.

This was the turning point in the talks. This was the opportunity for the North Koreans to get an agreement with the IOC: they would get two full sports, they would share some competitions with the South (possibly football, and certainly cycling), they would get their own organizing committee, and they could actually claim to be holding Olympic Games in Pyongyang. Certainly, Kim Yu-sun realized that the offer just made was much better than nothing at all. But he evidently lacked the authority, or simply the guts, to make a firm commitment. He did not want to make that call, and the opportunity was missed. This was also a missed opportunity for the IOC, for it may well have been that if Samaranch had offered three full sports, he could have reached an agreement with Kim Yu-sun. He could then sell that agreement to the South Koreans who would have been hard-pressed to refuse. Samaranch, however, needed talks more than he needed an agreement with North Korea. We can only guess at what the North Koreans wanted to accomplish.

Having failed to come to an agreement at the third round of talks, the North Koreans continued to lobby their allies to put pressure on the IOC. Kim Il Sung personally appealed to Gorbachev when he came to Moscow in October 1986 to support North Korea’s bid to host a third of the Games. He was disappointed with the Soviet leader’s response: “I will tell you frankly that the issue is in the principle, and not in the arithmetic.”[19]  Gorbachev explained his position to his East European allies on November 11: “I told comrade Kim Il Sung that it is not a matter of arithmetic here but of the political aspect. If they [the Games] are [held] both there [in the North] and there [in the South], then it means they are held in Korea. But he, in truth, was saying that because one third of the population is in North Korea, then one third of the Games should be. I think this is already arithmetic” (Document 31)

Gorbachev went on to elaborate why he could not support Kim Il Sung’s demands. “This [the Olympics] is a huge channel for cooperation, for influencing in the needed direction… And if we took this road [the road of boycott], we would do injury to ourselves, to our policy. Therefore, this is the interconnectedness of these elements” (Document 31). This last point shows very clearly the line of Gorbachev’s reasoning. It was not just that an Olympic boycott would undermine Moscow’s interests in the athletic sphere, and severely handicap Soviet efforts to host Olympics in the future. This was only a part of the problem. Gorbachev, however, realized that sports and politics were mutually intertwined, and that by associating the USSR with Pyongyang’s intransigent attitude he could sabotage his own broader foreign policy goals, or the so called Soviet “peace offensive,” globally, and in the Asia Pacific region. Gorbachev would have none of that. He claimed that Kim Il Sung “met this with understanding… But he hopes for our firm position and I promised that we will have a meeting, I promised him that we will talk about it” (Document 31) They never did meet again.

In the meantime, the East Europeans were getting the idea. Seeing where the wind was blowing, East Germany’s Erich Honecker, Kim Il Sung’s “brother and best friend,” told Samaranch after meeting with Gorbachev that his country’s athletes “were preparing for the 1988 Olympic Games at Seoul.”[20]  The Czechs and the Hungarians signaled their readiness to participate in the Olympics and provided their flags and anthem recordings to the IOC. The North Koreans were increasingly anxious. In April 1987 socialist ambassadors (other than China’s and Cuba’s) were summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang, and delivered a lecture about how their countries’ undue eagerness in the Olympic matters hindered the progress of talks at Lausanne, because, seeing the attitude of the Eastern Europeans, “the other side [the South Koreans] has shifted to a tougher position.”[21]

In May, Kim Il Sung went to China in a desperate effort to get his other ally to boycott the Seoul games, while also urging China to stem the tide of business ties with South Korea. He was told, though, that business ties would continue— “there is no way to stop or control this” —and that China had also firmly decided to participate in the Olympic Games, although “we will not hurry to announce this.” The reason for Beijing’s attitude, Kim Il Sung learned to his dismay, was that South Korea was doing exceptionally well economically. “We have to try to become closer to them. The people will follow where life is better.” We do not know whether those were exactly the terms used in the talks with Kim Il Sung, but this was how the Chinese ambassador in Pyongyang described the encounter in his conversations with fellow diplomats. No doubt, being told off like this was a huge blow to the “Great Leader.”[22]

There is a relative paucity of evidence, in this collection and elsewhere, concerning North Korea’s policy making in the second half of 1986 and the first half of 1987. However, one may speculate that there was internal policy deliberation, in which the more uncompromising line won the day. This conclusion is suggested, in part, by Document 32, a record of the fourth and final round of talks in Lausanne on July 14-15, 1987, when the North Koreans adopted a completely unrealistic attitude, asking for eight full sports (this was a serious step back from their earlier offers). The DPRK delegation persisted in its demands even as Samaranch, in a gesture of belated generosity, offered the North four full sports (though not football). The North Koreans’ failure to agree to this offer is one clear indication that they no longer had any realistic expectation to actually host the Games; by now, they were simply posturing, likely for the benefit of all potential supporters of a boycott, of which by then there were very few indeed.

Document 38, Samaranch’s record of his meeting with the Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Madrid on January 20, 1988, shows that the Soviets were not fully aware that Pyongyang’s attitude had already hardened. Having learned of the details of the IOC offer to the North (probably, four full sports, as discussed in the fourth round of talks), Shevardnadze optimistically declared that this offer was “in fact extremely close to what the president of the DPR Korea, Mr. Kim Il Sung, had told Mr. Gorbachev when he visited Moscow” and promised to get back with Samaranch “soon,” presumably after discussing the issue with the North Koreans. We do not know what Samaranch made of Shevardnadze’s sudden approach, which opened up the possibility that an agreement may be reached at the last moment. As it happened, nothing came out of the Soviet mediation effort.

Indeed, after the fourth round of talks, Pyongyang appears to have pinned its hopes on public disturbances in South Korea (there were, to be sure, massive protests in the run-up to the December 1987 Presidential elections), and on outright acts of terrorism, such as the bombing of the Korean Air flight 858 by DPRK agents on November 29, 1987. Evidently, the North Korean hardliners (which, by some accounts, numbered Kim Jong-il in their ranks) opted for blatant sabotage of the Seoul Games, instead of a negotiated compromise a la Lausanne. At the IOC, Samaranch continued to receive threatening letters (e.g. Document 41, and Document 60) suggesting that things may yet take a turn for the worse in the months before the Games. “If IOC ignored the warning and opens the Olympic,” read a letter from “Mudungsan Death-Defying Corps,” “it should take the entire responsibility for the consequences incurred… We are death-defying corps ready for death.” Information that trickled down to the IOC from various sources in the intelligence community (e.g. Document 50) confirmed that threats such as these could not be taken lightly.

Samaranch was very worried by the prospect of some horrific scenario unfolding in South Korea in the run-up or, worse, during the Games. He kept the lines open to Pyongyang, exchanging fairly meaningless letters with the North Korean NOC (Documents 42-Document 47, Document 51 and Document 52), and even, at the eleventh hour (after the North had already refused to take part in the Games), proposing that the two delegations march together at the opening and closing ceremonies in Seoul in order to “show in the most striking way that [the youth of Korea] belongs to one and the same nation, and to demonstrate its strong desire for dialogue and reconciliation” (Document 57). He also worked hard to keep the South Koreans from doing something excessively provocative.

For example, on January 21, 1988 Samaranch sent a letter to Roh Tae-woo, who was days from his inauguration as the South Korean President, asking him to cancel the joint US-South Korean military exercise, “Team Spirit 88,” as a “gesture of goodwill and demonstration of your sincere desire for Peace” (Document 37). This appeal fell on deaf ears. On June 30, Samaranch forwarded Roh Tae-woo a proposal by the IOC advisor Samuel Pisar (Document 48), which called for an “imaginative act of statesmanship a la Sadat” by Roh, which would cut through the Gordian knot of disagreements. “I believe,” wrote Pisar, “that if Sadat and Begin could develop a momentary dialogue leading to a truce, and eventually peace over the Sinai, Roh and Kim Il Sung could do something similar at least as regards the games, if not the reunification.” This appeal, too, had no particular affect. In his very belated reply on July 20 (Document 53), Roh criticized Pisar’s report as “a departure from the fundamental position of the International Olympic Committee.”

Roh was no Sadat. Pisar put his finger on the problem when he wrote in the report: “The current South Korean mentality appears to be cast in marble: ‘let’s humiliate the North with a highly successful Olympics in the South, then we will be able to negotiate from strength.’” This, however, was Seoul’s “mentality” from day one after the Baden-Baden decision. The South Korean policy makers held a fairly cavalier attitude towards the North from the beginning, and were likely lured into the talks at Lausanne only by the possibility of a socialist boycott of the Games. By 1988 this possibility was not seriously entertained. There remained only one other possibility: that Kim Il Sung would strike across the border. But Roh likely shared Chun Doo-hwan’s sentiment on this score: he won’t. I know it. And he knows that I know it. If Sadat took this sort of attitude to Camp David, he never would have reached any agreement with Israel. But North Korea was no Israel. When at last the Games opened in Seoul, there were no nasty surprises. There were more disturbances from debauching American athletes than from “death defying corps.”[23]  Kim Il Sung preferred to sit tight and weather it out. So, perhaps, Chun and Roh were not far off the mark?

Seoul was locked in a competition with Pyongyang for prestige and international recognition, and this competition was itself a chapter in the Cold War. The grand finale of this chapter was the Seoul Olympiad, so we should not be surprised, perhaps, that Roh was in no mood to settle for anything but a complete triumph. The South Koreans were playing for huge stakes. Roh and Chun would not be intimidated by threats from the “death defying corps,” or even acts of terrorism. In retrospect, it is tempting to conclude that the Blue House indulged in impermissible recklessness. One wonders, for instance, whether, if the South Koreans were more accommodating in 1986, a suitable agreement could have been reached at Lausanne, thus dissuading the North Korean hardliners from engaging in terrorism, which, in the case of KAL 858, for instance, cost more than 100, mostly South Korean, lives. It is hard to know what shall pass and, who knows, even if Chun and Roh had a crystal ball, perhaps they would have still preferred to have a complete triumph in Seoul to an accommodation with the North. At least, in the short term.

In the longer term, the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul represented a major missed opportunity. We know what happed: the Games were a huge success. They marked a high point in South Korea’s quest for acclaim and prestige. They precipitated diplomatic recognition of South Korea by the socialist bloc. In short, just as Pisar predicted, they resulted in Pyongyang’s humiliation and isolation. Left to lick their wounds, practically abandoned by their allies, and unable to negotiate with South Korea on anything approaching equal terms, the North Koreans sought assurance of survival in strengthening the role of the military, and in pursuing the nuclear deterrent. The expectation, so prevalent in 1989 and immediately thereafter, that the North Korean regime would fold any time, proved overly optimistic in retrospect. North Korea is still there, unstable, threatening, and nuclear-armed more than twenty years after the long-forgotten triumph of the Seoul Olympics. Few dared to imagine this in 1988, but the Games were a fork in the road for the Korean peninsula. It is said that participation is more important than winning. Not so for South Korea in 1988. Triumph proved to be much, much more important than accommodation with the North.

Quite apart from the South Korean policy, the United States also preferred blatant pressure to accommodation. No one was in a better position than the Reagan Administration to encourage a more compromising attitude on Seoul’s part. But if Roh was no Sadat, neither Reagan—nor, especially, Bush—had Carter’s foresight. Instead of using the Games as an opportunity for reaching an agreement between the North and the South, Washington gave a blank check to Seoul to press as hard as it deemed fit, and if the North Koreans did something stupid—well, they would have it—as Chun confided to Samaranch. It is interesting that in the late 1980s, low-level talks were conducted between the US and North Korean diplomats in Beijing to feel the ground for improved relations. These talks, very much appreciated in Pyongyang, were never taken seriously in Washington, where anticipation of the regime collapse blunted imaginative policy-making. Seoul 1988 was a triumph for the United States, as it was a triumph for South Korea – but only in the short term.

History, it is said, is a map to the present. If the 24th Olympic Games in Seoul offer a lesson to the present-day, it is that one should try to avoid humiliating one’s opponent. It may be overly optimistic to suppose that, if North Korea were allowed to host a part of the Games in 1988, and if it opened it borders to the Olympic family for just the few days while the Games were on, a political breakthrough would necessarily follow. But it may well have been possible to avoid the kind of militant isolation that North Korea found itself in after its sound defeat at the hands of the South. Engagement is a stage-by-stage process, and engagement with North Korea in 1988 could have paved way for even deeper engagement in the years that followed. Instead, what followed for North Korea was a nuclear crisis, international isolation, and a devastating famine. The letter of the 1981 Baden-Baden decision was observed, but not, it would seem, the spirit. Now that the 2018 Olympic Games had been awarded to South Korean Pyeongchang, the lessons of the 1988 will be hard to ignore. 

* * *

Sergey Radchenko is Lecturer at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China. His publications include Two Suns in the Heavens: the Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy (Woodrow Wilson Center Press & Stanford University Press, 2009). He co-authored (with Campbell Craig) The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (Yale UP, 2008). He is also the co-editor (with Artemy Kalinovsky) of The End of the Cold War in the Third World: New Perspectives on Regional Conflict (London: Taylor and Francis, 2011). He has just completed a monograph on the Soviet Union’s last decade in Asia titled Half a Leap Across An Abyss.



[1] Documents included in this NKIDP e-Dossier were obtained from the Archive of the International Olympic Committee, in Lausanne, Switzerland; the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), in Moscow, Russia; and the Archive of the Gorbachev Foundation (AGF) also in Moscow, Russia. Special thanks are due to Professor Shin Jongdae and the University of North Korean Studies for their part in making this NKIDP e-Dossier possible. The editor would also like to recognize the assistance of Christian Ostermann, James Person, Laura Deal, Charles Kraus, Na Sil Heo, Esther Im, and Robert Lauler of the Woodrow Wilson Center and Sebastian Naranjo Rodriguez of the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

[2] Tracy Dahlby, “Award of 1988 Olympics Boosts S. Korea's Effort For Political Security,” The Washington Post, October 4, 1981, H2.

[3] Richard Pound, Five Rings Over Korea: : The Secret Negotiations Behind the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1994), 120-158.

[4] Pound, Five Rings Over Korea, 148.

[5] For an in-depth account of the Soviet policy towards the Seoul Olympics and of Soviet-South Korean relations, see Sergey Radchenko, Half a Leap Across An Abyss, forthcoming book manuscript.

[6] “Seoul Puts Foot Down for 1988 Olympics,” Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), April 19, 1985.

[7] “Roundup: Judo”, The Globe and Mail (Canada), September 30, 1985.

[8] “Roundup: Archery”, The Globe and Mail (Canada), October 7, 1985.

[9] “Roundup: Toronto Boxer Reaches Finals”, The Globe and Mail (Canada), November 6, 1985.

[10] “Roundup: Olympics”, The Globe and Mail (Canada), May 7, 1985 and Washington Post, October 8, 1985.

[11] Larry Siddons, “The Goodwill Games…,” The Associated Press, April 24, 1986.

[12] Conversation between M. Dugersuren and Eduard Shevardnadze, January 24, 1986, in Mongolian Foreign Ministry Archive, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (hereafter MFMA): fond 2, dans 1, kh/n 504, khuu 142.

[13] The Soviets had expressed interest in the idea in the summer of 1985 but never submitted their bid officially. The 17th Winter Games were ultimately held in Lillehammer, Norway (and in 1994, not 1996, in accordance with the IOC decision to separate the Winter Games from the Summer Games).f

[14] “China says it will take part in Seoul Asian Games,” Japanese Economic Newswire, June 30, 1986.

[15] Zhonggong zhongyang wenxian yanjiushi, ed., Deng Xiaoping Nianpu, 1975-1997 (Chronicle of Deng Xiaoping, 1975-1997), vol. 2 (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 2004), 1097. Although the broader context of his conversation with Kim Il Sung is missing, it is not difficult to surmise that Deng’s comments were a response to Kim’s request to boycott the Seoul Olympics. An East German intelligence report dated July 15, 1985 already stated that China had promised (ostensibly through private channels) that it would take part in the Seoul Olympics. See Aussenpolitische Informationsubersicht, July 15, 1985. BStU: MfS – Hauptverwaltung Aufklaerung 56, s. 13. China’s Olympic bid failed on that occasion and the Games went to Sydney in 2000.

[16] Conversation between Juan Antonio Samaranch and Li Menghua, April 30, 1986, in International Olympic Committee Archive, Lausanne, Switzerland (hereafter IOC Archive), JAS/Voyages 1986, Paris, Portugal, Pekin etc., JAS Voyage Pekin 27/04-01/05/86.

[17] Cited in Natalia Bazhanova, “North Korea and Seoul-Moscow Relations,” in Korea and Russia: Towards the 21st Century, ed. Il Yung Chung (Seoul: Sejong Institute, 1992), 327.

[18] Letter from Marat Gramov to Juan Antonio Samaranch, June 6, 1986, in IOC Archive, URSS, sommet Reagan-Gorbatchev 1986-1986-1987.

[19] Vadim Medvedev, Raspad: Kak on Nazreval v Mirovoi Sisteme Sotsializma (Moscow: Mezhdunarodnye Otnosheniia, 1994), 326

[20] “Erich Honecker, East Germany's Communist Party chief and head of state…,” The Associated Press, November 14, 1986.

[21] Cable from the Mongolian Embassy in Pyongyang to the Mongolian Foreign Ministry (April 29, 1987), in MFMA: fond 3, dans 1, kh/n 178 (irsen shifr medeenii no. 61).

[22] Cable from the Mongolian Embassy in Pyongyang to the Mongolian Foreign Ministry (June 6, 1987), in MFMA: fond 3, dans 1, kh/n 178 (irsen shifr medeenii no. 80).

[23] E.g. see “Charges Dropped Against Two US Swimmers Accused of Theft,” The Oregonian, October 1, 1988.



[Click to Return to Sergey Radchenko's Introduction Above]

[Select links below to view the individual documents in the NKIDP Digital Archive, or click here to view the complete collection]


Letter from Fidel Castro to the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Juan Antonio Samaranch
29 November 1984



Letter from International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Juan Antonio Samaranch to Fidel Castro
4 December 1984



Letter from the President of the British Committee for Supporting Korea’s Reunification to the President of International Olympic Committee
6 January 1985



Note from the President of International Olympic Committee to the President of the British Committee for Supporting Korea’s Reunification
30 January 1985



Report by IOC Vice President Ashwini Kumar on his Trip to North Korea
16 July 1985



Interview with Fidel Castro on the 1988 Seoul Olympics
25 July 1985



Korean Workers’ Party Manifesto on the 1988 Seoul Olympics
31 July 1985



Letter from the Permanent Mission of the ROK, Geneva, to IOC President regarding the USSR, Cuba, and North Korea’s Positions on the 1988 Olympics
31 July 1985



Memorandum of Meetings held between the IOC President and Roh Tae-Woo
28 August 1985



Letter from the National Olympic CommittOC President of the People’s Republic of China to the IOC President
19 September 1985



The Proposal by the National Olympic Committee of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
30 September 1985



Note from the IOC President to the NOC President of the People’s Republic of China
30 September 1985



Meeting between the NOCs of the ROK and of the DPRK held under the Aegis of the IOC
8 October 1985



Ichiro Ogimura and Young C. Kim's Efforts to Facilitate the 1988 Olympic Games
8 October 1985



Note from the IOC President to the DPRK’s NOC
5 November 1985


Meeting between the IOC and the DPRK’s NOC regarding the Agenda and Details of Future Meetings
7 January 1986



Meeting between the IOC and the DPRK’s NOC on Increasing North Korea’s Participation in the 1988 Olympic Games
9 January 1986



Meeting between the IOC President and the ROK’s NOC on North Korea’s Participation in the 1988 Olympic Games
9 January 1986



Meeting between the IOC President and the DPRK’s NOC on North Korea’s Participation in the 1988 Olympic Games
13 January 1986



Letter from the IOC President to the NOC of the ROK including a Summary of the 8-9 January 1986 Meeting between the Two Korean NOCS
15 January 1986



Meeting between the IOC President and the DPRK’s NOC on North Korea’s Participation in the 1988 Olympic Games
15 January 1986


Meeting between the IOC and the DPRK’s NOC regarding North Korea’s Participation in the 1988 Olympics
20 January 1986


Meeting between the IOC and the DPRK’s NOC regarding the 1988 Olympic Games in Pyongyang
7 March 1986



Meeting between the IOC and the South Korean Sports Minister regarding the Asian Games and Television Rights
7 March 1986



IOC President Interview with Chun Doo-hwan on North Korean Threats to the 1988 Seoul Olympics
19 April 1986



Meeting between President Chun Doo Hwan and President Samaranch
25 April 1986



Conversation between the Secretary of the CC CPSU Yakovlev A.N. with the Secretary of the CC KWP Hwang Jang-yeop
16 May 1986



Memorandum of the Two-Day Meeting between the Two Korean NOCs and the IOC
10-11 June 1986



Recommendation by the NOC of the ROK to the IOC on North Korea
15 October 1986


Statement by M.S. Gorbachev: “The Amelioration of the International Situation, Strengthening of Peace”
11 November 1986



Memorandum of the Meeting between the NOCs of the Two Koreas and the IOC in Lausanne
14-15 July 1987



North Korea’s Advance Notice for Delivery of a Letter to the NOC of the ROK on the Olympic Games
11 September 1987


Letter from the DPRK’s NOC to the IOC President on North Korea’s Participation in the 1988 Seoul Olympics
11 January 1988



Letter from Fidel Castro the IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch
13 January 1988


Information Note on a Meeting between Willi Daume and Marat Gramov
15 January 1988


Letter from the IOC President to Roh Tae-Woo on “Team Spirit 88” Exercises and 1988 Seoul Olympics
21 January 1988



Memorandum of Conversation between the IOC President and Eduard Shevardnadze regarding North Korea and the 1988 Olympics
21 January 1988



Intelligence Note from West Germany’s NOC to the IOC on the Possibility of North Korean Threats to the 1988 Seoul Olympics
25 January 1988



Letter from the IOC President to Fidel Castro regarding North Korea’s Participation in the 1988 Olympics
16 February 1988



Letter from the Central Committee of the National Democratic Front of South Korea to the IOC Opposing the 1988 Seoul Olympics
25 February 1988



Letter from the DPRK’s NOC to the IOC on Samaranch’s Proposal to Visit North Korea
4 June 1988



Letter from the DPRK’s NOC to the President of the IOC requesting a Postponement of Samaranch’s Visit to North Korea
10 June 1988



Letter from the DPRK NOC to IOC President on Comments made by IOC during a Press Conference in Barcelona
15 June 1988



Note from the President of IOC to the President of the DPRK NOC
24 June 1988



Note from the President of the DPRK Noc to the President of the IOC
27 June 1988



Note from the President of IOC to the President of the DPRK NOC
29 June 1988



Letter from the President of the IOC to Roh Tae-Woo with a Proposal for Further Initiative between South and North Korea
30 June 1988



Letter from U.S. Senator Ted Stevens to the President of the IOC on Reagan, Gorbachev, and the 1988 Seoul Olympics
5 July 1988



Information Note from Dr. Klaus Georg Wieck to the IOC President on Security and Terrorist Threats to the 1988 Seoul Olympics
6 July 1988



Letter from the President of the Olympic Committee, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the President of the IOC
7 July 1988



Letter from the President of the IOC to the President of the Olympic Committee of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
19 July 1988



Letter from Roh Tae-Woo to the President of the IOC on North Korea’s Participation in the Olympics
20 July 1988



Note from the President of International Olympic Committee (IOC) to Roh Tae-Woo, President of the Republic of Korea on the 1988 Seoul Olympics
24 July 1988



Letter from the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly to the National Assembly of the Republic of Korea
26 July 1988



Note from the President of International Olympic Committee to U.S. Senator Ted Stevens on the joint statement by Reagan and Gorbachev on the safety of the 1988 Seoul Olympics
28 July 1988



Note from the President of IOC to Richard W. Pound, IOC member regarding issue of co-hosting the 1988 Olympics by the two Koreas
11 August 1988



Letter from the President of the DPRK’s National Olympic Committee to the President of International Olympic Committee on the issue of co-hosting the 1988 Olympics
16 August 1988



Letter from the President of IOC to the DPRK’s National Olympic Committee (NOC) representative
8 September 1988



Letter from the President of the IOC to the Korean Olympic Organizing Committee (SLOOC), in reference to the Letter sent by a South Korean student organization threatening violence during the 1988 Seoul Olympics
10 September 1988


About the Author

Sergey Radchenko

Sergey Radchenko

Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
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