Special Report: Attacks on XXIII Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea Unlikely Despite Heightened Regional Tensions

Special Report: Attacks on XXIII Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea Unlikely Despite Heightened Regional Tensions

Executive Summary

South Korea will host the XXIII Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang County, Gangwon Province, Feb. 9-25. Competitions will take place at several ski resorts in PyeongChang County and the city of Gangneung, on the eastern coast of the country. The opening and closing ceremonies will be held at the Alpensia Resort, outside Daegwallyeong; this is also home to the Olympic Village. The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games will take place amid increased tensions in Northeast Asia following a series of North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear weapon tests, and increasing uncertainty regarding US policy on the Korean Peninsula. North Korean weapons tests are likely to continue in the near term, including during the Games. However, North Korean conventional military, cyber, and terror threats cannot be ruled out. There are no known specific terror threats to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics; however, North Korean agents or international terrorist groups may seek to target the event due to its high international profile. Security will be increased at XXIII Olympic Winter Games venues and in the South Korean capital, Seoul. Officials will deploy thousands of personnel to secure the Games; however, the greatest threat to personal security during the international sporting event will be petty crime.

Key Judgments

  • North Korea is likely to carry out some sort of provocations ahead of or during the XXIII Olympic Winter Games; additional ballistic missile launches or nuclear tests appear most likely, though a North Korean conventional, cyber, or asymmetric incident cannot be ruled out.  
  • North Korean leaders remain preoccupied with regime survival, and are unlikely to take any action that would trigger a major military response from South Korea and the US.
  • While there is currently no specific threat from international terrorist organizations, the possibility of a relatively unsophisticated attack by such groups cannot be ruled out.

Regional Tensions and Potential Threats

North Korea is intent on enhancing its international prestige, improving its strategic bargaining position, and demonstrating its capability to cause damage to US interests in the unlikely event of a full-scale regional conflict. The high international profile of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics provides an excellent opportunity for North Korea to further these goals, most likely through initiating high-profile nuclear and/or missile tests before or during the Games.

As the North Korean leadership maintains its primary overall objective of regime survival, it is extremely unlikely that Pyongyang will initiate a full-scale attack against the event. Any such attempt would almost inevitably result in massive South Korean and US retaliation designed to topple the Kim regime. However, North Korean agents could target the Games through cyberattacks, terrorism, or other asymmetric means that would allow Pyongyang to successfully disrupt the Games without attribution or initiating a full-scale military conflict. It is also important to consider the military capabilities North Korea could deploy in the highly improbable event of a full-scale conventional conflict during the Games.

The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, like all such high-profile global events, makes an attractive target for transnational militant organizations, such as Islamic State (IS).

Nuclear and Missile Tests

As part of its ongoing efforts to display its nuclear capabilities, North Korea may undertake additional nuclear or ballistic missile tests before or during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. These weapons tests are unlikely to directly affect the Olympics; however, they may intensify ongoing regional tensions. North Korean nuclear or missile tests could occur at any time, and may be preceded by warnings from US or South Korean intelligence.

Feb. 14 and 16 are especially likely dates for North Korea to carry out provocative actions. Generalissimo Day - a public holiday meant to honor Kim Jong-il, the father of North Korea's current leader - is celebrated in North Korea Feb. 14. Feb. 16 is the "Day of the Shining Star," which celebrates Kim Jong-il's birthday. Since the opening ceremony of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics is scheduled for Feb. 9, conducting a missile or nuclear test Feb. 14 or 16 could provide an excellent opportunity for North Korea to receive heightened international attention during the Games.

North Korea has tested several long-range missiles in recent months. On November 29, North Korea launched a Hwasong-15 into the Sea of Japan. The missile traveled only 950 km (590 miles), but reached an altitude of over 4,475 km (2,780 miles). Many experts believe the missile could potentially travel 13,000 km (8,077 miles) if launched on a standard trajectory, putting the entire US mainland within its range.

North Korea is likely to continue launching its long-range missiles to the east, as Pyongyang is unlikely to risk damaging ties with China or Russia by launching missiles toward their territory, and a southbound missile test could be misinterpreted as an actual attack, which could initiate a full-scale war. North Korean missiles may land in the Sea of Japan, or they could overfly Japanese territory, setting off alarms in Japanese cities. The threat posed by North Korean missile tests may create some minor flight disruptions. Since July 2017, Singapore Airlines has slightly modified flights between Seoul and Los Angeles to avoid the potential re-entry path for North Korean missiles. However, the likelihood of accidental collision between a North Korean long-range missile and a commercial airline is small to negligible.

A North Korean nuclear test is also possible during the Games. Although a nuclear test would raise regional tensions, it would be highly unlikely to directly disrupt the Olympic Games. North Korea has tested its nuclear devices underground, limiting the threat of widespread nuclear fallout. If North Korea conducted a large, above-ground nuclear test, there may be regional impacts from radiation. Such a test would be more likely to spread radiation to northeast China or Russia's Far East Region rather than South Korea. However, the probability of an above-ground detonation remains low.

Terrorism

To date, there are no known specific terror threats to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. However, due to the high international profile of the Olympics, North Korean agents or international terrorist groups may seek to target the Games. While South Korean security forces will seek to prevent any attack, the threat of terrorism cannot be entirely eliminated.

Pyongyang has targeted South Korea with asymmetrical attacks in the past. In 1987, two North Korean agents planted a bomb on a Korean Air flight between Baghdad and Seoul; the resulting explosion killed all 115 people onboard the aircraft. Small groups of North Korean special forces have carried out shooting attacks in South Korea by infiltrating via tunnels.  However, such attacks have not occurred for decades.

North Korean asymmetrical capabilities were on display during the recent assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un's elder brother. The elder Kim was assassinated with VX nerve agent at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport Feb. 13, 2017. At least two suspects - a Vietnamese national and an Indonesian - were arrested for the attack, which is widely believed to have been orchestrated by North Korean agents. While Pyongyang is unlikely to risk a war by launching a chemical attack against the 2018 Winter Olympics, it has the technical capability to do so.

Finally, international terror organizations, such as IS, may seek to carry out attacks at the PyeongChang Olympics. It would likely be difficult for foreign nationals to acquire guns or explosives in South Korea. However, a relatively low-tech attack, such as targeting pedestrians with a rented vehicle, would be much more challenging to prevent.

Security

Authorities have intentionally kept security plans for the PyeongChang Winter Games classified, but reports indicate South Korea will deploy more than 5,000 public and private security personnel to protect the Games. Strict measures, including metal detectors and x-ray scanners, will be present at all major venues. A heavy police presence is likely in PyeongChang, as well as in Seoul, which will serve as the major international transport hub for the event. A newly-created Special Weapons and Tactics team will monitor and respond to potential terror threats. Organizers have also reportedly engaged a private firm to protect the Games against cyberthreats. Additional security measures, such as no-fly zones and increased maritime patrols, are also likely to be implemented in the days leading up to the Games.

The PyeongChang Winter Games will take place approximately 125 km (78 miles) east of Seoul. The South Korean capital will serve as the main international hub for athletes and spectators arriving and departing the Games. Crime rates in Seoul and South Korea are low compared to other industrialized countries; however, petty theft, sexual assault, and other crimes do occur. Armed attacks are rare. The crime rate in the capital decreased by 21 percent when South Korea hosted the 2002 World Cup, likely due to amplified security. Police and other security personnel will probably increase their presence in the capital in the days leading up to the XXIII Olympic Winter Games. The most intense security measures will likely be reserved for  popular tourist sites, such as Gyeongbokgung Palace and Seoul Tower, parks, temples, and shopping and entertainment areas such as Insadong, Myeongdong, Itaewon, Gangnam, Sinchon, and Hongdae.

Conclusion

Early assessments indicate that the XXIII Olympic Winter Games will most likely take place with few disruptions. Security preparations are well underway and key venues and transport infrastructure have been upgraded and tested. However, the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics is taking place under a shroud of uncertainty due to heightened geopolitical tensions  over North Korea's ballistic missile and nuclear weapon programs. While North Korean leaders may exploit the global attention fixed on the XXIII Olympic Winter Games to carry out provocations in the region, the fundamental calculus about regime survival remains paramount, and North Korean leaders are unlikely to launch any attack that will intentionally trigger a larger conflict.  

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