Glimmers of Hope at the Olympics

Glimmers of humanity brightened the Olympic skies in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  But Vice President Mike Pence’s brooding presence sought to extinguish any human-to-human, kinship-like, diplomacy between South and North Korea inspired by their unified participation in the Olympics.

The Vice President made his threatening presence felt two days before arriving at the Olympics.  His quoted aim was “to stand with our allies and remind the world that North Korea is the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet.”  He warned that the “United States planned to levy the toughest sanctions yet on the North over its nuclear and missile programs,“ adding, “ ‘We will continue to intensify our maximum pressure campaign until North Korea takes concrete steps toward complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization.’ ” (“Pence, Returning to Tough Stance on North Korea, Announces New Sanctions,” By. Mark Landler, The New York Times, Feb. 7, 2018)

Vice President Pence also told reporters, “We’re traveling to the Olympics to make sure that North Korea doesn’t use the powerful symbolism and the backdrop of the Winter Olympics to paper over the truth about their regime.”  “The truth,” according to Pence: it is “a regime that oppresses its own people, a regime that threatens nations around the world, a regime that continues its headlong rush to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.”  One aim of his visit “was to tell ‘the truth about North Korea at every stop.’  “ (“Pence Doesn’t Rule Out Meeting North Koreans at Olympics,” By. Gerry Mullany, The New York Times, Feb. 6, 2018)

As a visual reminder of that “truth,” Pence’s invited guests to the Olympics included the father of Otto Warmbier, the American who suffered brain damage during his over a year-long confinement in a North Korean prison and died shortly after being released and returned to the US.  As reported, “telling the truth” about North Korea also included “Pence meet[ing] with four North Korean defectors, some of whom have been tortured and abused. “ (“Mike Pence, accompanied by Otto Warmbier’s father, meets with North Korean defectors,” Associated Press,, Feb. 9, 2018)

Shades of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union Address.  Trump’s invited guests were Mr. and Mrs. Warmbier and North Korean defector, Ji Seong-ho, holding up his crutches, which framed Trump’s referencing the “ominous nature” of the North Korean “regime.” (Who is Donald“ Trump’s Stat of the Union guest Ji Seong-ho, who defected from North Korea?,” By Amy Sherman,, Jan. 31, 2018)

Not that Vice President Pence ruled out a meeting with North Korean leaders at the Olympics.  “We’ll see what happens,” he said. (“Pence Doesn’t Rule Out Meeting North Koreans at Olympics,” Ibid)

What happened?   At the opening ceremonies, Vice President Pence sat a few feet from Kim Yo-jong,  the North Korean ruler’s sister and leader of that country’s delegation.   A stone-faced Pence did not budge.  When the North and South Korean athletes marched into the Olympic stadium together under a unification flag, Ms. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, sitting next to her, stood and enthusiastically joined in a standing ovation.  An unsmiling Pence did not budge. (“Kim Jong-un’s Sister Turns On the Charm, Taking Pence’s Spotlight,” By MOTOKO RICH and CHOE SANG-HUN, The New York Times, Feb. 11, 2018)

Before the opening ceremonies, President Moon hosted a dinner for Ms. Kim and Vice President Pence.  South Korean officials reportedly said, “While Mr. Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe both shook hands with Ms. Kim, Mr. Pence did not.”   Evidently the uncontrolled spontaneity of being in the same room with Ms. Kim and her delegation was too much for the Vice President.  As also reported, he “left the reception venue after five minutes.” (“Winter Olympics 2018: Pence skips dinner with N Koreans,BBC News, Feb. 9, 2018)

The Washington Post reported that North Korea decided not to meet with Vice President Pence after Pence “had used his trip to denounce North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and announce the ‘toughest and most aggressive’ sanctions against the regime yet.”  According to The Post, “Pence’s actions and rhetoric in the lead up to the Olympics contrasted with the image of progress being promoted by the South Koreans, who would have been eager to involve the United States in direct talks with the North.  . . .  A development that would likely cause consternation in Washington.” (“Pence was set to meet with N. Korean officials at Olympics before last-minute cancellation,” By Ashley Parker. The Washington Post,, Feb. 21, 2018)  With his bellicose behavior, Pence effectively torpedoed that possible development.

Self-professed Bible-believing Christian Vice President Mike Pence came to the Olympics to root for American athletes to win the gold medal, and left The Golden Rule at home.

For her part, after Kim Yo-jong departed from President Moon’s luncheon, his presidential palace was reported to have “released photographs of her message of hope that ‘Pyongyang and Seoul get closer in our people’s hearts.’ “  Ms. Kim also extended “an unexpected invitation from her brother to the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.” (“Kim Jong-un’s Sister Turns On the Charm, Taking Pence’s Spotlight,” Ibid)

Ms. Kim was such a hit that South Korean news media were reported to call her ” ‘North Korea’s Ivanka’ because of the influence the two are purported to have over the heads of state in their respective families.”  That, and because Vice President Pence’s harm offensive struck out, President Trump employed a charm offensive.  He put lipstick on “the toughest sanctions yet on the North” by sending his daughter, “the real Ivanka,” to lead the American delegation for the closing Olympic ceremonies.  Ms. Trump’s reported words were that “she was in South Korea to ‘reaffirm our bonds of friendship and partnership’ but also ‘to reaffirm our commitment to our maximum pressure campaign to unsure that the Korean Peninsula is denuclearized.’ “ (“Ivanka Trump, in South Korea, Calls for Pressure on the  North,” By CHOE SANG-HUN, The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2018)  The greatest threat to American capitalism’s imperial interests is the unification of North and South Korea.

Meanwhile, following the Olympics, the United States and South Korea plan to resume their annual joint military exercises, with North Korea the decades-long enemy.   It is not about “Pyongyang and Seoul get[ting] closer in our people’s hearts.”  It is about “all options are on the table,” including talk of the US military giving North Korea a “bloody nose” to discourage its pursuit of nuclear weapons. (See “Trump advisors clash over ‘bloody nose’ strike on North Korea,” By Zachary Cohen, Nicole Gaouette, Barbara Starr and Kevin Liptak, CNN Politics, Feb. 1, 2018)

The intent here is not to minimize North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s brutal oppression of his own people.  A January 2017 Human Rights Watch summary of North Korea’s human rights abuses begins: “North Korea remains one of the most repressive authoritarian states in the world,” as ruler Kim Jong-un has “continued to generate fearful obedience by using public executions, arbitrary detention, and forced labor; tightening travel restrictions to prevent North Koreans from escaping . . . and systematically persecuting those with religious contacts inside and outside the country.”

Human Right Watch cites a 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on North Korea  that stated, “Systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations committed by the government included murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortion, and other sexual violence and constituted crimes against humanity.”  While North Korea professes commitment to human rights, the government “curtails all basic human rights, including freedom of expression, assembly and association, and freedom to practice religion . .  . [and] prohibits any organized political opposition, independent media, free trade unions, and independent civil society organizations.”  Also, “arbitrary arrest, torture in custody, forced labor, and public executions maintain an environment of fear and control.” (Ibid)

Amnesty International, in turn, documents “six known political prison camps in North Korea,” holding some “200,000 political prisoners and their families . . . without trial or following grossly unfair trials.”  Family members are subjected to ”a system of ‘guilt by association’ used to silence dissent and control the population through fear.” (“North Korea: Catastrophic human rights record overshadows ‘Day of the Sun,’ “, April 12, 2012)

North Korea’s brutal human rights record provides no justification for the United States to wage war against the country.  In fact, a reality check is needed regarding the horrible war crimes the US has committed against the North Korean people.

In an essay on “The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950-1960,” Charles K. Armstrong, Director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University, provides a necessary reality check on America’s own glaring war crimes against North Korea.  Professor Armstrong documented the US Air Force’s destruction of North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War: “The act which inflicted the greatest loss of civilian life in the Korean War by far, one which the North Koreans have claimed ever since was America’s greatest war crime, was the aerial bombardment of North Korean population centers.”  Controlling “the skies over Korea . . . the US Air Force estimated that North Korea’s destruction was proportionately greater than that of Japan in the Second World War, where the US had turned 64 major cities to rubble and used the atomic bomb to destroy two others.”  By comparison, “American planes dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on Korea – that, is essentially on North Korea – including 32,557 tons of napalm, compared to 503,000 tons of bombs dropped in the entire Pacitic theatre of World War II.”  By the war’s end, close to “three million Koreans were killed, injured or missing . . . the majority of those killed were in the North.” (The Asia-Pacific Journal, March 16, 2009)

Professor Armstrong refers to other American war crimes, stating, “By the fall of 1952, there were no effective targets left for US planes to hit.”  So, “In the spring of 1953, the Air Force targeted irrigation dams on the Yalu River, both to destroy the North Korean rice crop and to pressure the Chinese, who would have to supply more food aid to the North.”  Also, “Five reservoirs were hit, flooding thousands of acres of farmland, inundating whole towns and laying waste to the essential food source for millions of North Koreans.  Only emergency assistance from China, the USSR, and other socialist countries prevented widespread famine.”   North Korea’s figures: “the war destroyed some 8,700 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals and 600,000 homes.” (Ibid)

According to Professor Armstrong, “the American air war left a deep and lasting impression.  The DPRK government,” he said, “never forgot the lesson of North Korea’s vulnerability to American’s air attack, and for half a century after the Armistice continued to strengthen anti-aircraft defenses, build underground installations, and eventually develop nuclear weapons to ensure that North Korea would not find itself in such a position again.” (Ibid)

The Korean War is a war that Americans are conveniently taught to forget, and a war that North Koreans are taught to remember. Thus Vice President Pence’s pre-Olympics announcement, that the “United States planned levying the toughest sanctions yet” on nuclear weapons-pursuing North Korea, fell on deaf ears, long memories, and logical minds.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would have to be out of his mind to surrender to US demands to stop his nuclear weapons programs.  He is well aware of the US falsely accusing Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein of having weapons of mass destruction, pre-emptively invading Iraq, executing Hussein and installing a US-controlled government.  There is also the grisly killing of Libyan ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and American-led forces turning Libya into a failed state — after Gaddafi accommodated the US by giving up his nuclear weapons.  And there is President Donald Trump’s threat to pull out of the Obama-administration-orchestrated nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, which Trump is quoted as calling “the worst deal ever” and “condemn[ing] Iran as a ‘fanatical regime.’ ” (“Iran nuclear deal” Trump’s high-stakes balancing act,” By Suzanne Kianpour, BBC News, Jan. 12, 2018)

The gravest threat to nuclear negotiations with North Korea is psychopathic liar and warmongering President Trump himself.  Trump called Kim Jong-un “little rocket man,” threatened to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea “like the world has never seen,” and boasts that he has a “much bigger” nuclear button” than Kim. (“Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ threat to North Korea sparks new fears of war,” By Bryan Bender and Jacqueline Klimas, POLITICO, Aug. 8, 2017)  Why would any sane leader believe Trump or trust him to keep his agreement about anything?  As reported, in response to Trump’s threat, “North Korea has vowed . . . to continue strengthening its nuclear arsenal and threatened ‘thousands-fold’ revenge against the U.S. . . . ‘for all the heinous crimes it commits against the state and people of this country.’ ” (Ibid)

There is also the forked tongue of Vice President Pence.  “At every stop” along the way to the Olympics, Pence told “the truth” about North Korea being “a regime that threatens nations around the world.”  Pence is talking about the United States, not North Korea.  The north has not invaded any country.  America, on the other hand, does more than merely “threaten nations around the world.”  According to the Council of Foreign Relations, in 2016 alone, the US “dropped . . . 26,171 bombs . . . on Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.” (“U.S. Bombed, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia in 2016,” by F. Brinkley Burton, NBC News, Jan. 9, 2017)

Why are American forces still in South Korea after 65 years?  Surely not to protect U.S. citizens.  Three years ago, North Korea reportedly “told the United States that it would impose a temporary moratorium on nuclear tests if Washington canceled its joint annual military exercises with South Korea to help promote dialogue on the divided Korean Peninsula.” (“North Korea Offers U.S. Deal to Halt Nuclear Test,” By CHOE SANG-HUN, The New York Times, Jan. 10, 2015

But peace with North Korea would not be good for military-industrial complex business, which supplies the resources that maintain around 30,000 U.S. forces in South Korea.  Besides, having a strong military presence in South Korea – along with forces in Japan and Guam – buttresses American capitalism’s imperialistic interests in the Asia-Pacific.

As is always the case, America’s pursuit of world domination is billed as protecting the security of U. S. citizens from “terrorists.”  As far away as Africa as well, where Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright was killed in an ambush in Niger.  Sgt. Wright’s aunt, Ginger Russell, was quoted as asking penetrating questions: “Are we protecting the United States?  Who Knows?  You don’t think of your military in Africa.” (“A Risky Patrol, a Desert Ambush And New Anguish Over ‘an Endless War,’ “ By Rukmini Callimachi, Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt, Alan Blinder and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, The New York Times, Feb. 18, 2018)

Along with battleships, jets and troops, there are the U.S. sanctions.  With Vice President Pence’s pre-Olympics broadside that the “United States planned to level the toughest sanctions yet on the North.”  Sanctions will not stop, nor never have stopped, North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.   Sanctions merely deny the people basic necessities, making their lives more miserable.  U.S. political leaders may hope such misery will lead citizens to rebel against Kim Jong-un’s rule.   Instead, the unrest that sanctions stir up is put down by Kim intensifying the repression of political dissenters.

War correspondent Patrick Cockburn has words for Vice President Pence’s heralding “the toughest sanctions yet on the North.”  Cockburn calls sanctions “war crimes.”  He cites North Korean fishermen in fragile boats, who are forced to “go far out to sea in the middle of winter in a desperate search for fish,” and many do not survive.  He says, “The deaths of so many North Korean fishermen in their unseaworthy wooden craft is one side effect of sanctions but not atypical of their toxic impact.  As usual,” he concludes, “they are hitting the wrong target and they are not succeeding against Kim Jong-un any more than they did against Saddam Hussein.” (“It’s Time to Call Economic Sanctions What They Are: War Crimes,” Counterpunch, Jan. 22, 2018; see also “North Korea sanctions could hurt millions as winter bites, Un says,” By Joshua Berlinger, CNN, Dec. 12, 2017))

Rather than counterproductive economic sanctions, Gavan McCormack, emeritus professor and an editor of the Asia-Pacific Journal, reports on a little publicized proposal that could resolve the nuclear crisis involving North Korea.  The proposal, called “the Putin plan,” was discussed by “the two Koreas (South and North), Japan, Russia and China” in a meeting “at Vladivostok.”  The plan: “The Vladivostok parties looked to open multiple lines of cooperation and communication across North Korea, extending Siberian oil and gas pipelines to the two Koreas and Japan and opening railways and ports and linking them across Siberia to China, the Middle East, South Asia, and Europe.  McCormack states that South Korean President Moon called the proposal “ ‘Northeast Asia plus,’ which involved construction of ‘nine bridges of cooperation,’ (gas, railroads, ports, electricity, a northern sea route, shipbuilding, jobs, agriculture, and fisheries.)”  McCormack writes, “Unstated, but plainly crucial, North Korea would accept the security guarantee of the five (Japan included), refrain from any further nuclear or missile testing, shelve (‘freeze’) its existing programs and gain its longed for ‘normalization’ in the form of incorporation in regional groupings, the lifting of sanctions and normalized relations with its neighbour states, without surrender.” (“North Korea and a Rules-Based Order for the Indo-Pacific, East Asia and the World,” The Asian-Pacific Journal, Nov. 15, 2017)

Professor McCormack concludes: “The Vladivostok conference showed that such mammoth schemes, hitherto little more than pipe dreams, were back on the drawing boards in Moscow and Tokyo as well as Beijing, Seoul and Pyongyang.  On all sides,” he continues, “the agenda of bridges and tunnels of communication replacing confrontation and military build-up and linking Japan and Korea with the Eurasian continent is ‘on the table.’  It is certainly more attractive than what is on the Trump-Abe-Turnball table.” (Ibid)  And it is an agenda that deserves the enthusiastic support of people of faith.

Glimmers of humanity at the Olympics support building “bridges and tunnels” connecting people, rather than military threats of annihilation.  Such a glimmer of humanity was the interaction between speed skaters Nao Kodaira of Japan, who won the Gold Medal, setting a new Olympic record, and South Korean world record holder Lee Sang-hwa, who came in second, winning the Silver Medal.  One might assume that there was more at stake than winning the race, as Korea was under harsh colonial Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945.  But after the race, as a dejected Lee began to cry, Nao skated over and put her arm around Lee, who responded by leaning her body against Nao’s, who comfortingly hugged her.  They then embraced.

The empathy of humanity that transcends bans and walls and builds bridges and tunnels to bring people together.


Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is