Special Report: Olympic Games Unlikely to Face Significant Disruptions

Special Report: Olympic Games Unlikely to Face Significant Disruptions

South Korea: XXIII Winter Olympic Games Unlikely to Face Significant Disruptions amid Temporary North-South Detente

South Korea will host the XXIII Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang County, Gangwon Province, Feb. 9-25. More than a million people are expected to attend competitions at several ski resorts in PyeongChang County and the eastern city of Gangneung. 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; however, recent overtures from both North Korea and South Korea could significantly reduce tensions during the Games. North Korea's participation in the event could indicate that Pyongyang will refrain from any missile or nuclear warhead tests during the Olympic Games. Nevertheless, a North Korean provocation cannot be entirely ruled out. Even in the unlikely event of a North Korean nuclear or missile test, such provocations would be highly unlikely to have direct impact on the Games. No known, specific terror threats to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics exist one month ahead of the Opening Ceremony, but North Korean agents or international terrorist groups may seek to target the event due to its high profile.

Key Judgments

  • The most significant threat to visitors to South Korea for the XXIII Olympic Winter Games or during the event is petty theft. However, increased security measures will help to mitigate the likelihood of becoming a victim.

  • Recent attempts to improve Inter-Korean relations will reduce the likelihood of a major North Korean provocation - such as a missile or nuclear test - during the Games. However, some inflammatory action from North Korea cannot be entirely 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.

  • Standard precautions should be effective in mitigating most health threats during the XXIII Olympic Winter Games.

Inter-Korean Tensions

Relations between Pyongyang and Seoul appear to be thawing ahead of the PyeongChang Winter Games. In his New Year's Day national address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un indicated he was open to talks with South Korea regarding participation in the Olympic Games, a move that quickly garnered an invitation for talks from South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The two sides exchanged hotline calls Jan. 3, marking the first time the two countries had used any hotline in nearly two years. Finally, on Jan. 5, Pyongyang accepted Seoul's offer for talks, after South Korean and US forces confirmed they would delay their annual Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military exercises until after the Games. North Korea has routinely blamed large-scale, US-led drills for increasing tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In the Jan. 9 meeting, North Korea agreed to send a delegation of athletes and officials to attend the Olympic Games, which will reduce the likelihood of a significant provocation during the event. Additional, low-level talks will be held on North Korea's participation in the Games in the coming weeks. The two sides also agreed both to reopen a military hotline, as well as to hold a direct, in-person dialogue between the two countries' militaries, to discuss tensions along their border. However, Seoul and Pyongyang did not discuss North Korea's nuclear or ballistic missile programs, and it is likely that North Korea will also demand concessions from South Korea before agreeing to discuss more contentious issues

Despite the perceived reduction in tensions, North Korea remains capable of carrying out a variety of attacks that would be difficult to trace back to the regime. North Korea understands that a conventional provocation would likely seem even more contentious during the Olympics, and the likelihood of such an incident appears low in the current climate. However, South Korean officials will remain vigilant for a potential attack from North Korea. The threat of cyber criminality is increasing at sporting events globally, and North Korea has previously targeted South Korea's financial, media, and government sectors.  An attack could seek to paralyze media or financial networks.

Security

Authorities have intentionally kept security plans for the PyeongChang Winter Games classified, but South Korea plans to deploy more than 5,000 public and private security personnel. Strict measures, including metal detectors and x-ray scanners, will be in place 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; personnel have carried out several exercises in recent weeks to prepare for a variety of contingencies. Games organizers have also reportedly engaged a private firm to protect the event 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 Olympic venues in and around PyeongChang. (Click image to enlarge map)

The PyeongChang Winter Games will take place approximately 125 km (78 miles) east of Seoul, the South Korean capital, which will serve as the central international hub for athletes and spectators arriving and departing the Games. Many visitors will elect to stay in Seoul, increasing demand for hotels in the city in the first half of February.

While crime rates in South Korea are low compared to other industrialized countries, petty theft, sexual assault, and other crimes do occur. Armed attacks are rare. Police and other security personnel will probably increase their presence in the capital in the days leading up to the Games. The crime rate in Seoul decreased by 21 percent when South Korea hosted the 2002 World Cup, likely due to heightened security. The most visible security presence 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.

Transport

Most spectators and athletes attending the XXIII Olympic Winter Games will travel through Seoul. Officials will carry out extra identification checks and baggage searches for arriving and departing passengers at Incheon International (ICN) and Gimpo International (GMP) airports, and immigration and customs delays are likely ahead of and after the Games. An influx of visitors will probably lead to increased congestion on major highways and public transport in Metropolitan Seoul beginning in late January. Similar congestion is probable on highways connecting Seoul to the Olympic Games venues, including 60, 50, and 55.

Transportation routes between Seoul and PyeongChang. (Click image to enlarge map.)

The Gyeonggang Korea Train Express (KTX) line opened Dec. 22, connecting Seoul to Gangneung. The high-speed rail link will reduce travel time between the capital and PyeongChang to under two hours. Trains will depart from Seoul and Cheongnyangni stations and make stops in PyeongChang, Jinbu, and Gangneung, providing access to areas hosting Olympic events via shuttle service. In February, Korail will operate an express service direct from ICN to the three stations; the service is available 16 times daily. Express service from Seoul Station will run eight times per day.

Health

Travelers participating in or attending the PyeongChang Winter Games in Gangwon Province should be aware of possible health-related threats. Education regarding pre-travel health planning, awareness of potential health threats, and an understanding of local health resources are vital to ensure a healthy experience.

The US CDC issued a "Watch - Level 1" travel health notice in November 2017 for the Games. This level of notice emphasizes the need for travelers to practice usual health precautions, primarily consulting a travel medicine provider four to six weeks before departure, being up to date on routine and recommended vaccinations, and practicing both basic health precautions and insect bite precautions while in South Korea. For more information about the US CDC travel health notice, click here.

Health Threats

Insect-borne Diseases

Insects in Gangwon Province can transmit diseases, such as Japanese encephalitis (JE), malaria, tick-borne encephalitis (TBE), and severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome (SFTS). However, the risk of insect-borne diseases during the PyeongChang Winter Games will be very low since insects are less active in cold weather. Furthermore, individuals will likely be wearing winter gear that covers exposed skin while outdoors, further reducing their risk.

Food- and Waterborne Diseases

The risk of contracting food- and waterborne diseases during the PyeongChang Winter Games is high since mass gatherings create the ideal environment for the spread of such diseases. Furthermore, hepatitis A and typhoid fever are considered major health threats in South Korea. Vaccinations are available to help protect against hepatitis A and typhoid fever.

To protect against food- and waterborne diseases, individuals should observe food and water safety precautions.

Other Health Concerns

 

The risk of developing diseases transmitted through respiratory droplets during the PyeongChang Winter Games is high since individuals are more likely to spend time indoors in proximity to others. These diseases include, but are not limited to, diphtheria, influenza (flu), measles, mumps, pertussis, rubella, tuberculosis, and varicella (chickenpox). Fortunately, vaccinations can help provide protection against these diseases. It is also important to note that PyeongChang 2018 will be held during the height of the seasonal influenza (flu) in the Northern Hemisphere. Most seasonal influenza transmission in the Northern Hemisphere occurs October to May, with cases typically peaking between December and February. The influenza vaccine must be received every year to be effective.

To further protect against diseases transmitted through respiratory droplets, individuals should practice basic health precautions. Rabies is a threat in wild and domestic animals in South Korea. Individuals should avoid contact with unfamiliar domestic pets and wildlife.

Diseases not commonly found in South Korea could also be imported during the PyeongChang Winter Games and may lead to wider transmission if appropriate control measures are not quickly and fully implemented. In 2015, South Korea experienced an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) linked to a case imported from the Arabian Peninsula. Victims were exposed to the virus in healthcare settings.

Pre-existing conditions such as hypertension, respiratory diseases, and diabetes could also be exacerbated during the PyeongChang Winter Games since individuals tend to eat more frequently and indulge in richer or more sugary foods while traveling, change their sleep schedule, and be exposed to very low temperatures. It is important to note that individuals who plan to take medications should contact the South Korean Embassy in their respective countries since some medications may be restricted or prohibited; examples include ephedrine, norephedrine, pseudoephedrine, ergotamine, ergometrine, and narcotics. For more information about properly packing prescription and over-the-counter medications, click here. 

Medical Infrastructure and Facilities

The possibility of overwhelmed healthcare systems during mass gatherings is elevated, and private medical care is expensive. Individuals attending the PyeongChang Winter Games should strongly consider travel health insurance and medical evacuation insurance that is readily accepted in South Korea. Cash payment is often required at the time services are rendered. Available care in South Korea may vary greatly from urban to rural settings, and quality care will most likely be obtained at private hospitals in urban settings. According to South Korean officials, each venue at the PyeongChang Winter Games will have a medical station to treat athletes and visitors, and a separate mobile medical team to respond to medical emergencies. However, since the venues in Jeongseon and PyeongChang counties are in rural areas, it is highly recommended that individuals be evacuated to Gangneung or Wonju in the event of serious injury or illness. The two hospitals affiliated with the PyeongChang Winter Games in Gangneung and Wonju are Gangneung Asan Hospital and Wonju Severance Christian Hospital.

Conclusion

Inter-Korean talks have raised hopes for reduced tensions on the Korean Peninsula and increased the likelihood that North Korea will not carry out any provocations during the XXIII Olympic Winter Games. While the participation of a North Korean delegation indicates that major provocations are unlikely, South Korean security personnel remain vigilant for a possible, low-level terrorist incident or cyberattack during the Games. Additional North Korea missile and nuclear tests cannot entirely be ruled out, though their overall security impact would likely remain negligible. The more prevalent security threat for travelers to South Korea during the Olympic Games continues to be petty crime, especially around popular entertainment areas of Seoul, which will see an influx of visitors as the Games near. Increased security measures are likely in the capital and affected parts of PyeongChang County and Gangneung, particularly near transport hubs, as early as mid-January to ensure the XXIII Olympic Winter Games take place with few disruptions.

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