'Determined to Share the Limelight': North Korea, the CIA and the Olympics 30 Years Ago


When South Korea was awarded the Olympic Games, the CIA said the North would view it as a diplomatic humiliation and likely attempt to salvage some respect by forcing their way into the spotlight when the eyes of the world turned toward the peninsula.

While that appears to have happened already this year, if the controversial Western media coverage is to be a guide, the CIA analysts weren't writing today about the 2018 Olympics, but three decades ago.

"The award of the 1988 Olympic Games to Seoul is a symbolic political setback for Pyongyang, which remains determined to try to share the limelight of the event," a now-declassified CIA analysis says [PDF], under the heading "Pyongyang's Narrow Focus." "We suspect the North is pessimistic about the results of its ongoing effort to open talks with the United States on curtailing military exercises."

The analysis was written two years before the Games, in 1986, when the analysts were unsure whether Pyongyang would save face through diplomacy or violence. South Korean officials were deeply concerned that the North would attempt to "disrupt" the Games. 

"Some officials have told U.S. diplomats they would be willing to permit the North to host one or two more events in order to ensure a peaceful Olympiad," a December 1986 report says. "Others [redacted] argue the North cannot be appeased... [One official's] pessimistic view considers the next two years a dangerous period, during which the North will have to choose between 'assault and accommodation.'"

The next year, everyone got the answer when two North Korean spies slipped a bomb onto a Korean Air Lines flight. The device exploded when the plane was flying between Abu Dhabi and Bangkok, killing all 115 people on board.

"The mission was to block the upcoming 1988 Seoul Olympic Games," Kim Hyon Hui, one of the North Korean agents who planted the bomb, told CNN recently. Her partner on the operation committed suicide after the pair was captured in Bahrain.

But before that acknowledgment, the CIA was unsure about what North Korea was trying to accomplish with the attack.

"If the terrorist act was an attempt to frighten tourists away from the Olympics, other incidents may follow," the January 1988 report says [PDF]. "As an isolated incident, the airliner sabotage occurred too early to have a meaningful effect on the September games."

But after the attack, North Korea appeared to change course and no significant incidents followed. By July 1988, the CIA concluded that the North had failed first in diplomacy in their effort to co-host the games, in political brinkmanship in their effort to lead a large-scale boycott and finally in scaring off athletes and attendees with the bombing.

"None of its tactics are working well," the CIA said then [PDF]. "With the start of the Games looming, North Korea is trying to maximize the South's headaches and minimize its own loss of face. Pyongyang has stepped up propaganda that portrays the South as a dangerous venue -- rampant with AIDS and crime -- for the Olympics, hoping to persuade participants to back out... Pyongyang's returns so far have been thin.

"North Korea retains the option of openly attacking the Olympic Games in a last-ditch attempt to spoil the South's triumph, but the costs of this -- or even the sponsorship of less dramatic terrorist acts -- would be high for Pyongyang," the report says.

The next month, a month before the opening ceremony, the CIA briefed the 1988 presidential candidates on U.S. counter-terrorism policy and wrote the following, which word-for-word would not feel out of place in a briefing in the last few weeks:

"Despite recent slightly warming in North-South Korea relations, the potential for DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]-directed terrorism before and during the Olympics remains high." [PDF]

But then, a few days before the Games, a North Korean official said on the radio that the North would not be a threat to the Games, and the nation stuck by his word. 

In the end, North Korea and Cuba boycotted the 1988 Olympic Games, and a handful of other nations declined to show, but the international competition otherwise went off without a major incident.

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