The last time South Korea hosted the Olympics, the CIA set off alarms about North Korea

At Seoul's railway station, a man watches a TV screen showing what the North Korean government calls the Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov. 30, 2017.
(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)
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With the Olympic Games in South Korea approaching, American spies grew increasingly worried about a longtime adversary: North Korea.

“Pyongyang appears set on attempting to ruin the games,” the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency said in a written assessment, referring to leaders in the North Korean capital.

The year was 1988.

That’s when South Korea reintroduced itself to the world with the Summer Olympics, a highlight of its transformation from the ashes of the Korean War to the thriving nation it has become, among Asia’s largest economies.

Three decades later, another Olympics is planned for South Korea — the 2018 Winter Games, to be held in high-altitude villages 80 miles east of Seoul.

Volunteers wear the uniforms of the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics on Nov. 6, 2017, in Seoul.
(Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)

Concerns about North Korea haven’t gone away.

By most accounts, preparations for the event, which will begin Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, have gone smoothly. Glitzy new sporting venues for ice skating, hockey and other contests are mostly completed. A dedicated high-speed rail line from Incheon airport and Seoul to the central Olympic venues is set to open. And organizers say the largely rural area, historically a skiing destination for vacationing South Koreans, should have enough accommodations for as many as 100,000 visitors a day.

But Olympic officials have been dogged by questions about whether North Korea’s recent provocations — ballistic missile launches, nuclear detonations and a rhetorical war with President Trump — might depress ticket sales or directly affect the Games.

They say they expect the Games to be successful and safe, just like in 1988 — despite the concerns then and now.

“What I can tell you with confidence and conviction is that the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will be held in peace and it will be indeed a great international festival,” Cho Myoung-gyon, the unification minister, told reporters recently.

American officials weren’t so confident three decades ago, the documents show.

“We believe that violence perpetrated by North Korea is the highest security threat to the games,” according to another CIA assessment in the weeks before the event.

The documents, declassified a few years ago, are filled with worry from spies and their sources in South Korea — an American ally since the 1950s — about potential sabotage by North Korea.

At the time, the North’s threats were more conventional than now. Its nuclear weapons program didn’t emerge until the mid-1990s.

There were concerns about North Korean terrorism — as there are now, as evidenced by the Trump administration's recent decision to return the country to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

In 1988, North Korea, then as now a communist nation isolated from the kind of positive international publicity and economic investment enjoyed by the South, expressed anger about not getting a chance to co-host the Olympics.

It also resisted international recognition of two Korean states.

Its leaders, including patriarch Kim Il Sung, rejected the notion of a "Seoul" Olympics, according to the documents, and a two-year effort to find a role for the nation to co-host some minor events — archery, table tennis and women’s volleyball, among them — fell apart.

As the CIA began examining potential threats to the Olympics in the mid-1980s, the downing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987 heightened the agency’s concerns about North Korea. The bombing, which killed 115 people, mostly South Korean tourists, was attributed to North Korean agents.

That incident followed years of postwar efforts by Pyongyang to cause havoc for Seoul, including several failed presidential assassinations in the South, the documents recount.

At the same time, Seoul was also dealing with pro-democracy activists, some of whom hoped to use the Games as a catalyst for reunification with the North, according to the documents. The South had approved direct presidential elections only the year before, after decades of postwar military leadership.

A photo dated Sept. 25, 1988, of U.S. sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner waving the flag after winning the women's 100-meter sprint final at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

The 1988 Summer Games were marked by American sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner setting a still-standing record for the 100-meter dash and Canadian Ben Johnson, her male counterpart in the high-profile sprint, eventually seeing his gold-winning triumph tarnished by a doping scandal.

The North had hoped to use its natural communist allies to sully the Olympics with worry and perhaps international boycotts, as happened in 1984 in Los Angeles (following a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics). More than 150 nations ultimately participated, including the Soviet Union and East Germany (in their last Olympics before their demise) and China. Many historians regard the Games as a success.

The years before the event, though, were worrisome for American officials, according to the CIA documents.

“We think the North faces a difficult choice between accepting a decidedly junior role in Seoul’s Olympic triumph or rejecting the games and perhaps further tarring its reputation in an attempt to disrupt them,” agents wrote in 1986.

The next two years, analysts wrote, would force officials in Pyongyang to choose between “assault and accommodation.”

There were real concerns among American spies that Seoul, despite its efforts to provide security, might not be able to stop sophisticated terrorism plots, such as those involving weapons that, at the time, could be smuggled past metal detectors at airports and other venues.

Seoul is taking “extensive precautions to prevent violence and agent infiltrations,” they wrote, “but international air links to South Korea remain vulnerable to sabotage or to serve as transportation for terrorists.”

At the same time, efforts to include the North in the Games ultimately began to fall apart, with some believing that was the desired outcome for the South Koreans, who wanted to showcase their success alone to the world.

By the summer of 1988, Olympics organizers had concluded it was too late to include North Korea, the CIA reported. The North then began trying to portray South Korea as too dangerous a locale for international competition.

Their rhetoric, as it is now, was also making other nations nervous.

“The North has had some success in creating a sense of uneasiness in some quarters about the Olympics — many athletes and governments continue to express concern that North Korea might attempt to disrupt the games with terrorism,” the CIA documents state.

However, the CIA also said that the cost of disrupting the Olympics “would be high for Pyongyang.”

Organizers here, of course, hope that decades-old assessment remains true.

“I understand that some participating countries have concerns over the security developments surrounding the Korean peninsula,” Do Jong-hwan, the South Korean minister of culture, sports and tourism, told reporters recently.

He added, “This is a very important time in which we can deliver a message of reconciliation and peace.”


Stiles is a special correspondent.