South Korea | Cross-border talks lower risks around Winter Olympics

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South Korea | Cross-border talks lower risks around Winter Olympics

We have not identified any specific threats to the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, or its participants, attendees and sponsors, from either North Korea or other hostile actors.

Planned North Korean participation in the Games and a delay to scheduled joint US-South Korean military exercises reduce several key risks. In particular those relating to conflict and cyber threats around the event, which take place on 9-25 February, followed by the Paralympic Winter Games on 9-18 March.

We have not identified any specific threats to the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, or its participants, attendees and sponsors, from either North Korea or other hostile actors. Planned North Korean participation in the Games and a delay to scheduled joint US-South Korean military exercises reduce several key risks. In particular those relating to conflict and cyber threats around the event, which take place on 9-25 February, followed by the Paralympic Winter Games on 9-18 March.

Several clients have asked about the threats and risks around the Games. Broadly, we consider the event low-risk. Compared with the host cities of the most recent winter and summer Games in 2014 and 2016 respectively, PyeongChang is a benign environment in terms of terrorism, crime and unrest. And in general, infrastructure is safe and reliable. At a national level, we currently assess each of these risk types as either low or negligible, and do not anticipate increasing these levels before the start of the Games next month.

After a year of weapons testing, tensions and vituperative rhetorical exchanges between Washington and Pyongyang, North-South engagement around the Games is a positive sign. But it is far from certain that an apparent thaw will last beyond the coming weeks. Not only has the US insisted delayed joint drills will go ahead after the Games, but the North remains committed to possessing a credible nuclear deterrent. This is something that – at least so far – the US has refused to officially accept.

A new year, a new thaw

The risk outlook for the Games, but not necessarily the Peninsula in 2018, has been altered by a rapid upturn in cross-border engagement so far this year. Following a New Year speech by Kim Jong-un in which he said he is ‘open to dialogue’ with Seoul, the North reactivated a civilian ‘hotline’ and the first high-level talks took place on 9 January. These led to the reactivation of military-to-military contacts, an agreement of military talks between the Koreas, and confirmation that the North would send athletes and a senior political delegation to the Games.

The opacity of the North Korean regime means its motivations for engaging at this time are hard to gauge with high confidence. But like many expert observers, we think that the move is primarily calculated to probe splits between the South and the US over engagement with Pyongyang and their priorities on the Peninsula. The North made this plain by insisting after talks that its weapons are only aimed at the US.

There are other possible motivations. Engaging in talks creates conditions under which North Korea can avoid launching a provocation during the Games without looking like it has backed down. In doing so, the move also makes Kim look more like a rational leader, and possibly even statesmanlike, to an international audience who have followed his public trading of insults with President Trump.

Another possibility is that – as he himself has claimed – President Trump’s approach has brought North Korea to the table. It is credible – whether by accident or design – that Trump’s threatening rhetoric and a lack of consistent deterrent messaging within the administration has encouraged the North to engage, particularly if the effects of economic sanctions are starting to take hold.

Whatever the motivations, the long-term prospects of the talks are not positive, either in terms of longevity or progress given the North’s continued strategic commitment to possession of a nuclear arsenal. Denuclearisation is not on the table – South Korea raised the issue at the January meeting, but the North did not respond, according to the official account. Yet even in this context, if talks are able to sustain improved communications between the North and South, this seems likely to improve the chance of managing miscalculations on the Peninsula.

North Korea: conflict risk

On a shorter timeline, the implications of the talks in terms of reducing conflict risk around the Games are more positive. Engagement makes unpredictable or provocative actions by either side less likely, even as tensions remain unresolved, and so reduces the chance of accident or miscalculation. We have long assessed that these are the most probable avenues for escalation to conflict on the Peninsula. With conflict risk apparently falling in early 2018, the proximity of PyeongChang to the North-South border becomes less relevant to the level of risk specifically to the Games. The closest venues are a little over 80km from the frontier.

In addition to the talks, a postponement of scheduled joint US-South Korea military drills until after the Games reduces the likelihood of missile launches by the North in retaliation. However, Washington has made clear that the exercises will go ahead after the event, rejecting the idea of a pause in drills in exchange for one in testing. The fact the countries felt the need for a delay suggests that they anticipate heightened tensions in response. And given the North’s long-established insistence on an end to such drills, we anticipate that the regime would be likely to return to unpredictable provocations.

North Korea: cyber risk

Cyber threats originating in North Korea during the Games also appear to be lower since engagement with the South is likely to reduce their intent to mount such attacks. However, the North’s past activities have included information gathering from South Korean state entities, theft from banks and the use of ransomware and distributed denial-of-service attacks, including against Western commercial firms. All of this is suggestive of a high level of capability, should the North’s regime decide to target the Games or connected entities.

We understand that the organising committee has tasked a private cyber security firm with protecting the Games, both against North Korea and other state and non-state actors. No major international sporting event so far seems to have been affected by the kind of possible attacks identified in a report last year by the University of California. Those tactics listed with a potential physical security or safety impact include transportation hacks, panic-inducing hacks on venues, or entry manipulation. While a denial of data attack could have several disruptive applications against the Games, from ticketing and logistics to event results.

However, there have already been international media reports this month of hackers targeting organisations linked to the Games with emails containing malware in an attempt to steal data. In addition, press accounts suggest Russian hackers have been active ahead of the Games following a ban on the country competing this year due to accusations of state-sponsored doping at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

So far, these hackers have gone after the International Olympic Committee, which decided on the ban, as well as the US Olympic Committee and anti-doping agencies, rather than the PyeongChang organisers or related entities. Past attacks by Russian hacking groups, such as Fancy Bear, have also focused on trying to highlight possible doping by athletes from other countries. This suggests that embarrassing other states or organisations is their priority, not targeting the hosts or companies with ties to the Games.

Terrorism and other risks

We have not seen any threats against or even references to the Games in the online extremist media that we monitor, including messaging by jihadist, left-wing and right-wing groups and supporters. Nor have we seen any protest groups or movements specifically hostile to the Olympics. Although it is at least credible that single-issue groups might seek to exploit the international profile of the Games, such events are likely to be short lived and have few major security implications.

Despite the absence of specific threats, the multinational nature of the Olympics, and with it the prospect of the attention of billions of people, presents an almost unrivalled opportunity for publicity for terrorists and activists. Although there have not been any major terrorist incidents since 1972, various Olympics or Winter Olympics host countries’ intelligence services have always assessed that they are under a significantly increased threat for the duration of the Games.

The Olympics offer a global stage to even the most marginal terrorist group (or individual), meaning that at an attack cannot be ruled out even though we assess the overall terrorism threat and risk in South Korea to be low. The authorities appear to have devoted significant attention to preparation for terrorism or extremist activist actions. The police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit has mounted public drills, including preparations for drone attacks and a hostage taking in transit.

Security provisions

The Games will be accompanied by an extensive security effort involving tens of thousands of police, military and intelligence officers. The multi-agency Counter-Terrorism Safety and Security Centre (CSSC) will oversee and manage operations. Below this level, each agency and body has discrete areas of responsibility, with liaisons in place to close communication gaps between the different organisations.

The largest personnel contingents will come from the national police (over 137,000 officers, including specialist functions such as SWAT), the military (5,000 personnel, as well as 1,000 contractors), and private security who will provide access control, including providing and manning screening technology. According to press reports, organisers have spent $1.8 billion on ‘protection measures’ for the PyeongChang Olympics – although those reports to not make clear what this figure includes. This compares with a total security spend of nearly $1.4 billion for the London Olympics in 2012, of which almost $760m was spent on venue security.

The apparent depth of internal venue, perimeter and access security, planned for the Games increases the likelihood that any threats might be displaced from venues to less well-secured areas. These include entrance screening areas or fan zones. However, the additional police deployments, both around the Games venues and in the host area in general, are likely to help further deter and prevent security incidents, particularly given the already low threats from crime, terrorism and unrest.

Author: Risk Advisory's Security Intelligence & Analysis Service
Published: 22nd January 2018