While officially, the Olympics is an event that is supposed to transcend politics and promote good will between nations, it has historically been a chance for the United States to also display its strength and commitment to equality. Who can forget Jesse Owens showing without words the lie of Hitler's "superior race" during the 1936 Berlin Olympics? Or the Black Power fists raised during the Civil Rights battles at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics? Or even the Miracle on Ice in 1980?
The 2018 PyeongChang, South Korea Olympics have not been free from politics. The Russian athletes have not been able to compete under their country's flag, as the IOC banned Russia for doping during the Sochi games. And South Korea's complicated relationship with North Korea was made more complicated by the inclusion of North Korean athletes to a unified Korean team.
Now an astute diplomatic corps in the United States would issue a carefully worded congratulations as a symbolic movement forward towards peace.
But we're not dealing with astute diplomats. We're dealing with the Trump administration and their ham-handed inability to deal with North Korea. Specifically, in this case, Vice President Mike Pence has been practicing what can only be called "non-diplomacy" as the official representative of the United States.
Pence sat stone-faced in his seat as Moon and North Koreans officials stood together with much of the stadium to applaud their joint team of athletes. White House officials stressed that Pence had applauded only for the American team, but Asia experts said the vice president’s refusal to stand could be seen as disrespectful to the hosts.
U.S. officials have been urging South Korea to be cautious in its rapprochement with the North — a point Pence drilled home in private meetings with Moon on Thursday.
But North Korea’s terrible record on human rights and the growing threat from its nuclear weapons program appeared out of mind as Moon warmly greeted Kim Yo Jong, the sister of dictator Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, the country’s 90-year-old nominal head of state.
Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has shared the American skepticism of warming inter-Korean relations, greeted Kim Yong Nam.
At an earlier VIP reception for delegation leaders, Pence arrived late and stayed for just 5 minutes — and did not interact with the delegation from the North.
“The Koreans will think it’s a mood kill,” said Frank Jannuzi, an expert on East Asia at the Mansfield Foundation in Washington. He criticized the Trump administration for straining too hard to signal disgust of Kim Jong Un’s government.
“The grievances that the world has about North Korea are very legitimate. But the Olympic moment that President Moon is trying to generate here is not a time to nurse those grievances,” Jannuzi said. “It’s a time to focus on messages of reconciliation and peace.”
Seriously, there's not one other nation there who thinks that North Korea isn't dangerously unstable and a threat. But understanding diplomacy means understanding that you don't act like a petulant child and refuse to stand for the host country at the opening ceremony.
It's not a good look when Kim Jong Un's sister looks more statemanlike and is getting better international press than the American vice president.
New Republic writer Jeet Heer laid out why this is problematic in a Twitter thread:
The full thread available unrolled here, but I want to highlight a couple of important points:
Obvious problem is Trump's nuclear bluster ("fire & fury" Rocketman on a suicide mission). But the problem goes beyond that. Trump administration explicit policy is devaluing South Korean lives.
CIA director Mike Pompeo told Fox News that “this administration is prepared to do what it takes to ensure that people in Los Angeles and Denver and New York aren’t held at risk from Kim Jong-un having a nuclear weapon"
What Pompeo is saying is that the "risk" that USA lives as risk is so intolerable USA is willing to launch a war that will almost certainly kill tens of thousands of South Koreans (and Japanese).
And then to add insult to injury, while simultaneously cheering on Trump's awful (and uniformly unpopular) idea of a state military parade, called North Korea's parade on the eve of the Olympics opening a "threat"
Vice President Pence on Friday bashed North Korea’s military parade the day before as a “provocation,” while simultaneously praising President Trump’s plans for military parade in the U.S.
“Make no mistake about it, what we witnessed in Pyongyang, and we witnessed again yesterday, on the eve of the Olympics ... was once again an effort on the part of the regime in Pyongyang to display their ballistic missiles, to display a military that continues to make menacing threats across the region and across the wider world,” Pence told reporters in South Korea, where he is leading the U.S. Olympic delegation.
North Korea held the Thursday parade — featuring missiles, tanks and hundreds of soldiers — to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of its military.
But when asked if the U.S. had given up its “moral high ground” with Trump's plan to hold a grand military parade, possibly through the streets of Washington, D.C., Pence praised the concept.
“I think any opportunity we have to celebrate the men and women of the armed forces of the United States is a great day,” Pence said.
“I heartily support the president's call to celebrate our military.”
Dude. The world is watching. It is not good diplomacy to call to mind dictators and shows of strength while criticizing the same in others.
It's decidedly non-diplomatic.