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American participation in Olympics in doubt

Dec 09,2017
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said in an interview with Fox News that her country’s participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics next February was an “open question” due to security concerns over North Korea, stirring worries in South Korea Friday that the games could flop.

South Korea’s Blue House scrambled to rebut the idea, saying U.S. President Donald Trump had “promised” President Moon Jae-in during a recent phone call that his country would participate.

During an interview with Fox News’ “The Story with Martha MacCallum” on Wednesday, Haley said the U.S. government has not decided yet whether to participate in the games, adding, “What we will do is make sure we are taking every precaution possible to make sure” that American athletes are “safe and to know everything that’s going on around them.”

Asked whether she thought it would be safe for the athletes to compete in Pyeongchang, Gangwon, just 50 miles south of the inter-Korean border, the envoy said it “depends on what’s going on at that time in the country.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders reiterated the cautious stance on Thursday in a press briefing, saying, “no official decision has been made” on whether the United States would join the Olympics, adding it would be decided “close to time.” The decision will be made by various agencies, said Sanders, and Trump will “certainly weigh in.”

But shortly after the press briefing, Sanders took to Twitter to write that the U.S. “looks forward to participating” in the Winter Games, apparently trying to calm a storm of media reports that the United States will not be participating.

“The protection of Americans is our top priority and we are engaged with the South Koreans and other partner nations to secure the venues,” she tweeted.

On the same day during a separate press briefing at the U.S. State Department, spokeswoman Heather Nauert echoed Sanders’ statement that the United States looked forward to being part of the Olympics, but also said that the safety and security of Americans was its top security priority.

“If for some reason we felt that Americans were in dire danger in any place around the world, we would be very concerned about that and we would take appropriate action,” said Nauert.

A Blue House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity told local reporters Friday that Trump had “clearly promised” Moon U.S. participation in the Olympics, and that the brouhaha has been “handled” by the U.S. government’s “clear-cut” press briefings following Ambassador Haley’s comment.

Another official at the presidential office said the Blue House informed the White House through the National Security Council’s hotline that Haley’s remark was “conveying the signal that the United States might not participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.” How the White House responded was not explained.

For some local experts, Haley’s comment raised a red flag because it came shortly after John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush, said last week during a visit to the British House of Commons that CIA chiefs have told Trump that he has a “three-month window” to halt North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile program.

If Trump misses the opportunity, the North will be capable of attacking U.S. cities with a nuclear payload, Trump was reportedly told.

A pundit on White House affairs said there were not any signs yet indicating the Trump administration is planning a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, but whether or not it would consider the attack in the near future may be clearer after Jan. 1, when leader Kim Jong-un delivers his annual New Year’s address, which sets out his national goals for the year.

Trump will likely announce whether the United States will join the Olympic Games after analyzing Kim’s speech, the expert said.

North Korea has yet to announce whether its athletes will participate, though Moon extended an invitation publicly on multiple occasions.

A Seoul government official said Friday that the International Olympic Committee was discussing with Pyongyang a possible visit by its president, Thomas Bach, to the North in order to negotiate the country’s participation.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN, KIM HYUN-KI, KANG TAE-HWA, JEONG YONG-SOO [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]