Columns, Opinions

Friedman ’19: Showmanship is not diplomacy

Staff Columnist
Thursday, February 15, 2018

As Shaun White is becoming a household name again for the first time in four years, I can finally say with confidence that the Winter Olympics are back in full swing. White, whose back-to-back 1440-degree spins won him his third career gold medal in the men’s halfpipe Wednesday, represents the fourth American gold medal winner thus far in the Pyeongchang games. Oddly enough, the other three American golds also came from snowboarders: Red Gerard and Jamie Anderson for slopestyle and Chloe Kim for halfpipe.  As two of the American golds came from historically-young Red Gerard and Chloe Kim, both 17 years old, Brown students who are 18 years and older have to ponder what they’ve actually accomplished with their extra years.

But the Pyeongchang Olympics are historic not only for the impressive athletic performances underway, but also for their significance in the possible unification of the divided Korean Peninsula. The Olympics are theoretically apolitical but notoriously political anyway, and the 2018 Olympics are no different. Concerningly, North Korea has seized this moment in an attempt to whitewash its inhumane regime by making inauthentic gestures at diplomacy.

North Korea did not hold back with its unanticipated showmanship as it deployed a platoon of cheerleaders this past Monday in support of the joint Korean women’s hockey team in its match against Sweden. In addition, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sent his sister, Kim Yo-jong, (also known as “North Korea’s Ivanka Trump”) as an emissary to sway the opinion of South Koreans during the opening ceremony and hockey match. Of course, the Trump administration could not remain consistent — Vice President Mike Pence disrespectfully remained seated during a standing ovation for the joint Korean hockey team on Sunday, while just two days later President Trump entertained the idea of talks with North Korea despite its resistance to eliminating its nuclear stockpile. This inconsistency only plays into North Korea’s hands as it continues its propaganda campaign to curry international favor throughout the Olympics.

As Frank Bruni thoughtfully pointed out in a New York Times column this week, this public relations routine on the part of North Korea has been woefully successful. The governments of South Korea and the United States were charmed into forgetting that North Korea still practices public executions and starves its citizens long enough to initiate peace talks. Kim Yo-jong even achieved a measure of internet fame for the “deadly side-eye” she apparently gave Vice President Pence, leading many on social media to overlook her complicity in her brother’s dictatorship.   

Why is this allowed to happen? Whether Korean reunification is a good idea or not is a different matter, but the Olympics should not serve as the propaganda platform that launches the discussion. North Korea should have to entice the United States and South Korea into peace talks on its own political merit, not on the beguiling charm of a last-minute diplomat. Though I don’t want to be dramatic, I am tempted to say “now more than ever” — it seems as though the subtext of the Olympics has never overshadowed the underlying athletic achievements more than now. The coverage of North Korea’s new public image has been just as dominant as that of the sports results, medal counts and athlete biographies that usually comprise most Olympic coverage.

The Olympics have been used to paint authoritarian regimes in a less threatening light before. When Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Adolf Hitler utilized the platform as a way to sway international opinion in favor of his anti-Semitic, white supremacist ideals. Eighty years later, though North Korea is not the host of these games, Kim Jong-un is similarly attempting to soften his reputation and that of his government by taking advantage of the South’s initiative to present a more unified vision of the peninsula.

If North Korea wants to improve its international standing, it should take steps toward genuinely improving its citizens’ quality of life by reducing censorship, promoting human rights and ending its warmongering campaigns rather than by partaking in meaningless and distracting pseudo-diplomacy. The United States, and the rest of the world, should accept nothing less than tangible change when considering further cooperation with this volatile, authoritarian state.

Andrew Friedman ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to

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