Absent the credible threat of imminent war, the U.S. government should allow our team to compete in the Feb. 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. To do otherwise would be a supplication to misplaced fear and a rebuke to athletes who have trained relentlessly to represent the nation.
Unfortunately, it seems that the Trump administration is wavering on this issue.
On Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said it is an "open question" whether U.S. athletes will attend the games. On Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders added to the doubts, declaring that "no official decision has been made."
We mustn't head down this path.
Even in the present crisis of increasing tensions, the security issues can be mitigated.
First off, Pyeongchang is 58 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates South Korea from the North. But while some suggest that this proximity means the Olympics faces a great threat, I disagree.
For one, 58 miles puts Pyeongchang out of range of North Korean artillery units and too far for the North Korean air force to penetrate (certainly during an Olympic Games in which the South Koreans would likely operate combat air patrols). The North Korean surface navy would also be prevented from getting close enough to fire at Pyeongchang. Finally, while North Korean missile forces could attack the games, Kim Jong Un almost certainly recognizes that the symbolism of employing ballistic missiles would not only provoke but actually require the U.S. to launch a massive counteroffensive that would mean the end of his regime either way.
As I see it, that leaves just two options for a North Korean attack: launching a mass invasion or a special forces infiltration attack.
Again, however, neither represents a measurably significant risk.
An invasion focused on Pyeongchang would require the North Koreans to funnel their forces through that region's mountainous terrain, rendering them vulnerable to being bogged down and annihilated. At the same time, the necessary allocation of forces and supporting weaponry to the east of the Korean peninsula would deny the North Koreans the ability to effectively target allied command and control facilities around Seoul. Succeeding in that ambition is the only possible way that North Korea could hope to achieve any sort of victory.
In short, invading towards Pyeongchang would mean a regime-ending invasion that did nothing but fertilize the South Korean countryside.
That leaves the covert infiltration.
Considering that the North Koreans have repeatedly conducted this kind of attack and thus that they might believe it would not lead to regime-ending retaliation (although Trump should disabuse them of this possible notion), this is the most realistic security concern.
Of course, the U.S. and South Korea will be on very high alert at Olympic sites. This will involve allied security forces, presumably including U.S. special forces from the dedicated SOCKOR command. At the personal protection level, highly-skilled U.S. Diplomatic Security Service agents would travel with and guard the U.S. athletic delegation at all times.
So yes, while it's impossible to entirely mitigate the threat to U.S. athletes, a realistic threat assessment would suggest that the U.S. should send our team to South Korea. That in mind, the Trump administration should not yield to exaggerated fear.