Seoul (AFP) – South Korea promised Tuesday that the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang would be safe after suggestions that some athletes may skip the event if tensions over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions worsen.
The Pyeongchang Winter Games will be held from February 9-25 only 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the heavily guarded border with the nuclear-armed North.
French and Austrian officials last week raised the prospect of not sending athletes as US and North Korean leaders intensified their war of words.
Seoul’s foreign ministry played down the security fears, saying it is working through diplomatic channels to reassure participants.
“The South Korean government is doing its utmost to ensure that the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Paralympics will be safe,” said ministry spokesman Noh Kyu-Duk.
“As of now, no country has officially said it will not participate.”
Tensions have soared following Pyongyang’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test on September 3, which along with missile tests triggered a volley of threats and personal insults between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
Trump has threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, while Kim hit back with a personal attack on Trump — branding him “mentally deranged” and warning he would pay dearly for his threats.
In the latest episode of the saga, the North’s foreign minister claimed on Monday that Trump’s latest comments amounted to a declaration of war.
As the crisis has sent jitters across the globe, France was the first to publicly cast doubt over its participation.
“If this gets worse and we do not have our security assured, then our French team will stay here,” sports minister Laura Flessel said last week. “We will not put our team in danger.”
Although Flessel has since backtracked and said France will compete, her comments raised concerns that other nations could stay away.
The head of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics Lee Hee-Beom said earlier this month there was no “plan B” to move the Games and next year’s event would have “perfect security” despite the nuclear tensions.
The South has successfully staged several international sporting events including the 2002 football World Cup despite decades of military tensions on the peninsula.
The 1988 Seoul summer Olympics took place only months after a bomb planted by North Korean agents killed all 115 people on board a South Korean plane, in an apparent attempt to scare off foreign spectators and contestants.
The North’s International Olympic Committee member Chang Ung has also said the Pyeongchang Games will not be affected by the current crisis and expressed hopes of seeing athletes from his country competing.
“I am quite sure that politics is one thing and the Olympics is another thing,” Chang said in an interview with the Olympic Channel this month. “So I don’t see any big problem for the Pyeongchang Olympic Games.”
No athletes from North Korea had qualified so far, Chang said. “But hopefully if they are qualified, they will go.”