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North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics: a thaw in inter-Korean relations and the need for a memory-reset
DPRK leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year Speech, announcing a détente after years of advances in the nuclear weapons programme, missile tests and mounting tensions with the rest of the international community, came somewhat unexpectedly. Within days, delegations of the two Koreas had met, and proposals to ensure North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics, to be held in Pyongchang (South Korea) next month had been tabled. The International Olympic Committee met in Lausanne, Switzerland on 20 January, alongside the sports ministers of the two Koreas to seal an important agreement that will allow North Korea to participate in the games and the two Koreas to cooperate prior to and during the Games. This cooperation will mean that:
- Teams of the two Koreas will march together at the opening ceremony under a unified blue peninsula on white camp flag (the Hanbandogi, also known as ‘unification flag’ or ‘Korean peninsula flag’). The banner will be carried by two athletes, one from the South and one from the North.
- North Korean athletes will take part in a number of disciplines, including Alpine-skiing, cross-country skiing, short-track speed-skating, figure-skating and – crucially - women’s ice hockey.
- The two Koreas will field a single women’s hockey team.
- 22 North Korean athletes, 24 coaches and 21 media representatives will be allowed to take part.
- South Korean skiing teams will also train in a North Korean ski resort.
- North Korea will send a 140-strong orchestra (the ‘Samjiyon band’) to perform, as well as 230 cheerleaders and 30 taekwondo athletes.
Official discussions between the two sides and visits by the North into South Korea have led to the first re-opening of the land border in about two years.
Joint march, flag, teams: rare events, but not unprecedented
North Korea’s participation in the Olympic games is a fairly regular occurrence (only missing the 1984 and 1988 games in LA and Seoul). In fact, even the presence of the unified Korea flag and the joint march at the opening ceremony have been seen before. The two teams have marched together nine times before, including at two summer Olympics and one winter Olympics (Sydney 2000, Busan 2002, Daegu 2003, Athens 2004, Turin 2006, Doha 2006). However, athletes from South and North competed separately in those sporting events.
What is rare is the presence of joint team, for which the only precedent dated back to 1991, when North and South fielded a joint Korean team at the World Table Tennis Championship in Chiba (Japan) and the Youth Football Championship in Lisbon (Portugal). This is, therefore, a first, at the Olympics.
Ok, good news, but… does this matter, politically?
As tensions soured from the late 2000s onwards – Pyongyang’s advancements in its nuclear weapons programme did little to provide a conducive environment for cooperation, and Seoul’s conservative administrations of Lee Myung-Bak and Park Geun-hye showed little interest in engagement. The last year of rising tensions and insults traded by Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have added to the urgency of breaking the impasse and the need to decrease tensions and, ultimately, the risk of war on the peninsula. South Korea’s current president Moon Jae-in has made improving inter-Korean ties a priority of his administration.
Considering that negotiations leading up to the agreement entailed the first political meetings in over two years (the last one was held in Kaesong, North Korea in December 2015) this represents good, if unexpected progress in decreasing tensions on the peninsula, despite the North’s protestations that its participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics would be unrelated to the nuclear issue or other political negotiations.
The breakthrough is a welcome step in improving inter-Korean ties, but one should be wary of making too much of it, at least at the current stage. More is needed, from the re-opening of the Kaesong industrial complex, to family re-unions, to the resumption of organized tours to the North. All this without even mentioning the ‘elephant in the room’, the de-nuclearization of the peninsula, something which Pyongyang is unlikely to even contemplate.
The greatest impact is likely to be on the human level, as a result of cooperation in training and on the field between athletes from the two Koreas and the exposure of North Korean athletes to the public in the South. One has to recall that younger athletes, and young South Koreans in general, will only have a scant memory, if at all, of even the idea of the two Koreas marching together at sports events. Rather, they will bear more tragic memories, such as the sinking of the Cheonan corvette in 2010 and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island in 2015. If nothing else, the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics and the south-north cooperation will serve the purpose of re-humanising the ‘other’, a very important step in any conflict setting (the Korean War never ended as the hostilities ceased as a result of the 1953 armistice, but a formal peace treaty never followed).
Controversies in the South and beyond
The North’s participation was not unanimously met with approval in the South. Conservative groups, political parties and media have expressed strong discontent with what is seen as unnecessary softness towards South Korea’s unruly neighbour to the north. The women’s ice hockey’s US coach expressed reservations at what came across as an imposition from above. A joint Korean women’s ice hockey team will also include 12 players (added to the 23 members of the South Korean team) and 1 official from the North. The coach will be South Korea’s, but 3 players from the north must be selected in the team, fuelling discontent that the South Korean team has been stronger of late.
Japan, an adversary of the joint Korean team in the women’s ice hockey group, has expressed reservations about the number of exceptions made in this case. Logistics are also presenting challenges, as flying in the North Korean delegation would have violated international sanctions. Payment issues also will cause headaches.
There were also discussions as to the power of agenda-setting (why do the two Koreas talk only when Pyongyang decides when to talk and what to talk about?) and the power of manipulation: who is manipulating whom here? Who is taking credit and to what end?
The sudden thaw in relations also raises the question of the motives of Pyongyang’s overtures. Trying to second guess the exact motives of the move of the North Korean leadership is traditionally a fool’s errand. There are a number of possible reasons behind Pyongyang’s decision to take part in the games. Seeking to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington is one. Sanctions may have started to hurt too, and warmer inter-Korean relations may be seen as a step towards sanctions relief. North Korea places enormous importance to sports and thus may be keen on using its participation as a propaganda tool. From South Korea’s point of view this move brings Moon Jae-in’s interest in engaging the North into practice.
Merely symbolic? Symbols matter too
Overall, the value at present is certainly more symbolic than practical. On an immediate level it helps re-build some confidence and re-humanize a country – and its people - that all too often has suffered from de-humanization. The country is typically subject of either demonization or satire, and North Koreans are often depicted as puppet subjects of ideological indoctrination, deprived of any subjectivity. On a practical level, the goal appears to be that of restoring contacts, political and human, between the two sides. Beyond that, one should be cautious to speculate. An improvement in inter-Korean ties – and defusing of tension – is desirable. Establishing ties between teams that otherwise only have a memory of sinking boats and shelling islands is an important step towards resetting memory, or at least mitigate painful memories with narratives of cooperation. The road, however, is long and fraught with obstacles.
Youngmi Kim is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh.
Image: Tom Kelly CC BY-NC-ND