PYEONGCHANG, SOUTH KOREA —
South Korea has begun its one-year countdown to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and North Korea remains silent about whether it will take part in the games.
The head of the Winter Games organizing committee, Lee Hee-beom, said ahead of a celebrity packed countdown ceremony in Pyeongchang this week that anyone who loves peace can participate, even North Korea.
Lee added he doesn't believe tensions are increasing right now on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, however, began 2017 by boasting about his ballistic missile program after a series of missile and nuclear tests the previous year.
South Korea recently reaffirmed a plan to put a U.S. missile battery on the peninsula to counter, as Seoul's defense ministry stated, the growing North Korean nuclear threat.
Teasing an appearance
The Pyeongchang games will mark 30 years since South Korea hosted its first Olympics, the 1988 summer games in Seoul.
North Korea boycotted the event but has warmed in recent years to participating in international competitions in South Korea.
Michael Madden, a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies U.S. Korea Institute, said there is no question North Korea will compete in Pyeongchang.
"North Korea will certainly stoke a kind of a teasing about whether they're going to send somebody to the dreaded South for the games. But they're going to definitely field teams to the Winter Games," he said.
Madden noted the North took a similar approach ahead of the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, before sending its athletes.
All of the Winter Olympic venues are located within Gangwon Province, which remains divided along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that was established at the end of the Korean War.
Compared to many places in South Korea, Madden said, the citizens in the southern half of Gangwon Province typically, "support a more dovish policy from the South Korean government toward the North."
Since South Korea won its bid in 2011 to host the winter games, North Korea has hinted at jointly hosting sporting events for the 2018 games. Pyeongchang's organizing committee and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have shut down the idea, citing the IOC charter.
Gangwon Province Governor Choi Moon-soon supported the idea, but has since withdrawn his interest. Outside the Gangneung Ice Hockey Center, where Team Korea will compete in Olympic hockey for the first time, Choi told VOA the people of Gangwon are still deeply wounded by the split of their province.
"They hope for unification, and not just for the separated families, but for the development of Gangwon Province," said Choi.
Choi added he expects North Korea to participate in the winter games, and a scheduled North-South women's hockey match in Gangneung this April could provide a good idea of what's to come. According to NKNews.org, the North Korean team's visit is still unconfirmed.
If there was ever a slim hope of a jointly hosted Winter Games, Madden said it got discarded with the political scandal that has ensnared President Park Geun-hye.
"If they [South Korea] had a popular president who was active in office, then we might be having a different conversation," he said.
South Korea is now led by an interim government under Acting President and Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. He spoke at the countdown ceremony about a "number of adversities" South Korea has faced to successfully prepare for the games, but didn't give specifics.
President Park Geun-hye was impeached in December and a court ruling will determine whether her powers are restored.
Hwang has continued Park's hardline approach to North Korea, but even if Pyongyang angers the South and its allies, there is precedent to suggest the North's athletes will head to Pyeongchang for the Olympics, an international event.
Ahead of the Rio Games last summer, North Korea tested a nuclear device and launched a rocket before sending athletes to Brazil.
Plus, Madden noted, it's international prestige and domestic propaganda for Kim Jong Un.