My Say: A sporting chance of peace on the Korean peninsula

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on February 5, 2018 - February 11, 2018.
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A basic tenet of the Olympic movement is that sport brings peoples together and so helps to promote peace and understanding. Could the recent dramatic moves surrounding the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, set to open on Feb 9, become an example of this belief in practice?

Hosting the Summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988 was a triumph for South Korea and the government and people of the South have been anticipating a similar successful outcome to the Winter Olympics. However, in the run-up to the Pyeongchang Olympics, global attention has been almost totally focused on North Korea.

Initially, the concern was that the ongoing nuclear and missile crisis, and the war of words with the US and the international community would deter some athletes and countries from participating because of worries over security and safety. Now, with the North’s cleverly calculated charm offensive, focus has shifted to its actual involvement in the Winter Olympics.

Over the past seven decades, North and South Korea have been committed to an intense bilateral competition — diplomatically, militarily and economically — which has also been projected onto international sporting arenas. Two conflicting emotions have been at work. Firstly to use sport, in line with the ideals of the Olympic movement, as a means to promote exchanges, cooperation, peace and ultimately unification between the two Koreas, and secondly, to also use sport nationalistically to enhance the global prestige of each individual Korean state, particularly in comparison with the other Korean state.

With tension on the Korean peninsula at the highest level it has been for several decades, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year message, in which he suggested that the North could participate in the Winter Olympics, has been quickly seized upon as a gesture for peace. Inter-Korean talks have been ironing out various aspects and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has shown itself willing to bend over backwards to accommodate the two Koreas’ new requests.

It has been easy in principle to agree that North Korea should participate — anyway, as an IOC member, the North’s athletes should not be excluded, provided they meet qualification requirements. But the devil is in the details. Marching into the stadium together under the Korean “unity flag”, as happened in Olympics from 2000 to 2006, is no problem, but the South Korean team’s chosen winter wear, which includes colouring and designs that clearly reflect South Korea, has to be scrapped in favour of more “neutral” uniforms.

One figure-skating pair from the North had already qualified, even if the North had not submitted all the necessary registration documentation by an earlier deadline, but the IOC is willing to fast-track approval and allow “wild card” entries in a handful of other disciplines. Far less easy is sorting out a joint team. Despite multiple previous attempts, dating back to the 1960s, North and South have never successfully created a joint team in any Olympic sport. This time, the women’s ice hockey team is the chosen vehicle, but the coach and players from South Korea are clearly upset to have their Olympic dreams compromised by incorporating North Korean players into the squad.

The North is also planning to send a group of around 230 cheerleaders, drawing on the precedent of an “army of beauties” first sent to the 2002 Asian Games in Busan. As before, these are bound to be subject to huge media attention, but some South Koreans fear they would become just propaganda tools for the North.

Also involved will be an orchestral delegation, seemingly including the leader of the popular Moranbong female pop band. The logistical arrangements for accommodation, performance venues and security will be problematic for the South. As anyone who has done business with the Koreans can testify, they do have an amazing ability to deliver, even when at the very last moment — that skill will be sorely tested this time because of the North’s very particular demands.

Moreover, public opinion in the South, which is broadly in favour of North Korean participation in principle, is already turning against the joint ice hockey team proposal and other activities that might be used mainly to promote the North’s image.

Having largely ignored the proposals for engagement emanating from Moon Jae-in since he became South Korean president last May and having railed against the international community’s steady implementation of tougher sanctions in retaliation for the North’s continuing nuclear and missile tests, why has Kim Jong-un now decided to talk with the South on sport?

Kim himself seems genuinely interested in sport, with basketball his clear favourite, and has even talked about turning the North into a “sporting superpower”. He has supervised the construction of several new sporting facilities in and around Pyongyang as well as a new ski resort at Masik Pass, which is not far north of the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas and will now be used for joint training. But the recent moves are more about politics than sport alone.

By appearing willing to contribute to sporting endeavour, he can burnish his image with South Koreans and the wider world, steal much of the global media limelight from the South, and send a message to the world that despite sanctions, North Korea remains unbowed.

His gestures have already persuaded the South Koreans and the US to postpone large-scale annual military exercises until after the Olympics and Paralympics are completed. Crucially, however, his officials have deliberately avoided any discussion of denuclearisation during the meetings with their southern counterparts and a major military parade is planned for Pyongyang on the day before the Olympics opening ceremony.

It is frequently difficult to work out exactly what is the policy of the Donald Trump administration but a continuing US belief in pressure on the North is clearly not quite in tune with Moon’s efforts to use the Olympic events as a way to jump-start inter-Korean peace negotiations.

Over the past seven decades, sporting contacts in the Korean case have almost never been translated into substantial political progress and reconciliation, usually because nationalistic feelings have got in the way. Talking is good and joining together in sport is also good, but the past record of raised — and dashed — hopes suggest a need for scepticism.

Brian Bridges lives in Melaka and is an adjunct professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong

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