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Will North Korea's Kim Jong Un disrupt the 2018 Winter Olympics?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 12/20/2017 Jim Michaels
A U.S. Marine attends a cold weather drill with South Korean Marines in Pyeongchang, South Korea. © Kim Hee-Chul, EPA A U.S. Marine attends a cold weather drill with South Korean Marines in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The 2018 Olympics could be a turning point in relations between North and South Korea.

What no one can predict, though, is whether the Winter Games will set the relationship on a road toward peace or bring the countries closer to another war.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is attempting to use the games as a way to lessen tensions. It's not clear how the North's unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Un, will react or whether he will try to disrupt the games, as many South Koreans fear.

In a move toward reconciliation, South Korea said this week it has requested that the United States delay upcoming joint military exercises until after the Olympics.

North Korea has a history of supporting terror attacks and assassination attempts against its southern neighbor. The Olympics, which have always been as much about geopolitics as they are about sports, has been a flashpoint for violence before.

In 1987, a pair of North Korean terrorists planted a bomb on a Korean Air flight, killing more than 100 passengers and crew. An investigation determined the objective of the bombing was to disrupt the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul by scaring off athletes and spectators.

North Korea hoped to prove that Seoul couldn't provide security for the games at a critical time for its southern neighbor.

For South Korea, the 1988 Games represented a “coming out,” said Patrick Cronin, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security. The country was emerging from the shadows of a series of military and autocratic rulers with a vibrant economy and democratic rule.

Preparing for the 1988 Olympics helped propel South Korea toward democracy, Victor Cha wrote in his book, Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia. Cha, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, appears in line to become President Trump's ambassador in Seoul, according to media reports.

Balazs Szalontai, an associate professor at Korea University, said it is unlikely that North Korea would attempt a terrorist attack today. It is possible, though, that the North might "try to steal the limelight" and stage a naval confrontation or carry out a missile test in an effort to embarrass or humiliate South Korea.

South Korea wants to avoid that and "will probably go to great lengths to pacify and calm down North Korea," Szalontai said.

The two Koreas fought a war that ended in 1953 with an armistice but without a peace treaty.

Moon, who was elected on a platform of renewing a dialogue with the North, has been trying to avoid antagonizing Kim's regime. He also has proposed that North and South Korea participate as one team in the Olympics. 

More: South Korea's president urges U.S. to postpone joint military drills

More: From good to bad: 5 possible options for what's next in North Korea-U.S. standoff

More: How Kim Jong Un stole Christmas. North Korea bans singing, drinking at parties

North Korea has not responded to the offer. Two North Korean skaters have qualified to compete in the games, but the regime in the capital of Pyongyang has yet to announce whether its athletes will participate, the International Olympic Committee said.

The North's participation is seen as an insurance against any effort by Pyongyang to disrupt the Olympics.

Moon's effort to suspend military exercises is a more significant overture. Joint military exercises in South Korea have long antagonized officials in Pyongyang and a suspension of the training operations have been used in the past to get North Korea to the negotiating table.

Team Spirit, a joint U.S.-Korean exercise, was canceled for a time in the 1990s in an effort to get North Korea to halt its nuclear program and allow international inspectors. North Korea ultimately violated the agreement and exercises resumed.

The latest proposal would likely effect two major exercises that generally occur in late February or March, but have not yet been scheduled. The United States is considering the request, Moon told NBC News.

The Pentagon said it does not comment on the timing of future exercises.

The Olympics are coming as tensions between Trump and Kim have intensified. The two have traded insults and Trump has labeled Kim as "Rocket Man."

H.R. McMaster, Trump's national security adviser, said the chance of war is "increasing every day" as a result of North Korea's nuclear program. North Korea has refused to back down from its missile tests or nuclear ambitions.

The Olympics may afford an opportunity for finding ways to lessen pressure, analyst Cronin said. “If you’re going to be forgiving this is the place to do that.”

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