Why the Winter Olympics can help to bridge Korea’s divide

Published in The Cherwell, the UK’s oldest & Oxford’s largest student newspaper, February 2018

At this week’s opening ceremony for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there were fewer flags being flown than there are nations competing. That’s because the North and South Korean teams marched together under the Korean Unification Flag – the first time this has happened since the 2006 Winter Olympics. Even more remarkably, the North and the South are fielding a single squad in ice hockey – the first ever Korean joint team at the Olympics.

This show of unity is consistent with the sensible principle that what individuates nations at sporting contests should be their cultural nationhood. It serves to remind all Koreans of how much they have in common: language, artistic tradition, religious heritage, and a two-thousand-year history. Many South Koreans are in danger of forgetting these commonalities. For the young, the division of their peninsula is an unquestioned fact of life.

Still, the benefits of sporting cooperation should not be overblown. During its existence from 1956 to 1964, the United Team of Germany helped to maintain fraternity and cordiality across the East-West border. But when relations soured in the mid ‘60s, the team was dissolved, and only in 1990 did sporting reunification follow on the heels of political rapprochement.

In light of the evanescence of sporting cooperation, we might wonder whether the downsides of fielding a joint team are really worth putting up with. One risk is that a mishap could worsen relations. In the past, North Korean athletes have defected at sporting events, as happened at the 1991 Barcelona Judo championship.

There’s also a possibility that public opinion will be negative. The South Korean conservative press have objected to the joint team on the grounds that it jeopardises South Korea’s chances of a podium position. That sounds like gratuitous whingeing: neither side ranked in the top 20 prior to their merger, so they were hardly likely to win a medal anyway. Nonetheless, coverage of the story galvanised tens of thousands of South Koreans to sign a petition protesting the plan.

Getting this far has required concessions by the South. Moon Jae In’s government insist that they haven’t promised aid in return for the deal. But they did undertake to postpone joint military exercises with the US as part of their agreement over the Olympics.

These costs are all worth bearing, however, because there’s evidence that sporting cooperation is providing an impetus for dialogue on more serious concerns. A delegation of 22 North Korean officials travelled to the South to attend the opening ceremony and watch the first game played by the joint team. Their number included Kim Yo Jong, a sister and close confidant of Kim Jong Un. She met for lunch with President Moon Jae In at Seoul’s Presidential Palace, inviting him to visit Pyongyang. The last time a South Korean President visited the North was over a decade ago – as was the last time a senior North Korean delegation visited Seoul.

We should also feel reassured that Kim Jong Un isn’t going to spin all this into a propaganda success. If he had wanted to point to successful North Korean athletes, then Asian Champion figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik would have fit the bill better than the joint team. Could Mr. Kim be interested in persuading North Koreans that Southerners view them as equals? Hardly likely: his propagandists have focused on inculcating contempt for the South, so putting moral weight on the opinions of Southerners would be a dramatic about turn.

In sum, then, we should be open to the hopeful message of Moon Jae In. “It is not an impossible dream,” says President Moon, that the Olympics will “become a candle that sheds light on peace”. It’s a dream that we should all get on board with.

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