U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said in an interview Wednesday with Fox News that it was an “open question” whether U.S. athletes would participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics in South Korea, given tensions in the region. Asked to clarify on Thursday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that “no official decision has been made” about participating in the Olympics.
It’s likely that both were simply speaking off the cuff. Sanders quickly followed up on Twitter after the briefing saying that “the U.S. looks forward to participating in the Winter Olympics.” There’s no reason to believe that there have been actual discussions about skipping the games. But rather than simply saying that, Haley and Sanders have made this into a conversation and contributed to the idea that Americans shouldn’t feel safe traveling to one of the safest countries in the world.
The remarks are the latest example of this administration’s inexplicably disrespectful attitude toward longtime ally South Korea. Usually, the perpetrator is the president himself.
During his campaign, Trump inaccurately suggested that South Korea, Japan, and other U.S. allies “do not pay us” for hosting U.S. troops on their soil. Since coming to office, he has mused about canceling a free-trade deal with South Korea and forcing the country to pay for a missile defense system it had agreed to host under a previously negotiated deal. He has publicly repeated a claim apparently told to him by Chinese President Xi Jinping that “Korea actually used to be a part of China.” He has also accused the South Korean government of “appeasement” in its efforts to restart diplomacy with the North, even though he himself has suggested the same thing at times.
Worst of all, he has raised the risk of conflict on the Korean peninsula and repeatedly threatened to attack North Korea, seemingly oblivious to the fact that South Korea’s civilian population would bear the brunt of the possibly catastrophic consequences. This has put President Moon Jae-in the position of having to reassure his country that the U.S. would never launch military action without South Korea’s permission.
For this administration to suggest its citizens should stay away from an event meant to showcase South Korea in front of the world—despite no known specific threat to that event, after spending months publicly suggesting it was willing to start a war that would definitely post a threat to South Koreans—is a signal of just how much the U.S. values the ally on the front lines of this conflict.
Beyond the South Korea issue, this messaging also looks deeply incoherent coming days after the White House ignored warnings that it was putting U.S. citizens abroad at risk by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Apparently the threat of violence won’t stop the administration from making a purely symbolic political statement, but it’s OK with giving Little Rocket Man power over where Americans can travel.