After some two years of extreme and ever-rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, a mini-rapprochement between South Korea and North Korea has been seen. On February 09, the 2018 Winter Olympics began in PyeongChang, a county in Gangwon Province of South Korea. The PyeongChang Olympic Stadium welcomed all 92 countries boasting nearly 3,000 athletes, with all eyes on the sight of North and South Korean competitors uniting to walk into the stadium together for the first time. The development has brought a thaw in ties between the both nations. The reprieve, however brief, that the event has brought to the Koreans as well as to many nations around the world is more than welcome. Achieving sustainable peace and sustainable development are critical objectives and the Games in PyeongChang offer promise of peace and prosperity.
Sports promote peace, harmony and mutual understanding among nations. Sports provide a useful way of creating an environment in which people can come together to work toward the same goal, show respect for others and share space and equipment. Participation in sports encourages political, economic and social dialogue among countries to diffuse mutual tensions and build a strong and durable relationship. Among all sports, Olympics provides a unique opportunity to the global community to enhance interaction among its members.
The Olympic and Paralympic Games attract people from around the world and help reinforce a set of unifying objectives. The goal of Olympism, as the Olympic Charter states, is “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”.
The Olympic spirit allows people to be together, from all over the world, to respect each other, to assert the values of tolerance, of mutual understanding that are the basic elements for peace to be possible. One such momentous event was held in South Korean city of PyeongChang where 33rd Winter Olympics – the event ran from 9 to 25 February 2018 with certain events being held prior to the official opening ceremony – have acted as a tool to bridge differences between the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), also called North Korea.
The Winter Olympics 2018 has already delivered an unexpected geopolitical dividend. The symbolism of this opening ceremony was impossible to miss. So much of the show’s message of peace was crafted before it was known that North Korea would attend the Games, and then the opportunity arose to incorporate something deeper that could be hoped for. When Korea marched, they all dressed alike and waved the same flag, and one couldn’t tell who was the North or the South Korean anymore.
Last year, the world had seen a belligerent North Korea conduct a rash of ballistic missile launches, nuclear detonations, and engage in a fierce rhetorical war with US President Donald Trump — with the latter mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “rocket man” and the young dictator threatening to rain nuclear destruction on the United States.
But in 2018 Kim has adopted a more conciliatory tone, calling for détente with the South Koreans.
Pyongyang confirmed in January 2018 that it will send athletes and cheerleaders to the games in PyeongChang starting after the nation’s first high-level bilateral talks with Seoul in two years. The latter said it will temporarily lift sanctions to allow the former to attend the Olympics.
The unexpected bilateral warming began with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year message that the Olympics would be a “good opportunity to show unity of the people.” He also spoke of potentially melting “frozen North-South relations,” and since then the two nations have reopened a hotline, and the Trump administration has also consented to suspending joint military drills previously scheduled to coincide with the Games. Should the Olympics ultimately help contribute to a sustained thaw in relations in coming months, it would prove a surprise very few anticipated even in December.
Call it what you like – Pyongyang’s Smile Diplomacy, Soft Power, Charm Offensive, Political Posturing or plain propaganda, the uplifting scenes when delegations from North Korea and South Korea paraded together wearing the same costumes and under one flag came a much-needed breath of fresh air in a region that has remained stifled by fears of war and political tensions for decades.
Remember, both Koreas are technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in an armistice with neither side victorious. In 1986, North Korea boycotted the Asian Games staged in Seoul and the 1988 Summer Olympics in the South Korean capital.
Coming as it did against this scenario, North Korea’s landmark agreement to send a team to the Winter Olympics in South Korea, rising above more than six decades of political tensions with its southern neighbour, was a watershed moment in the history of both the nations.
However, whether the 2018 Winter Games can command a positive narrative and stronger legacy remains in the balance. Only time will tell whether the current feel-good gestures will bear fruit in the long run. However, given the past acrimony — and especially since the Korean peninsula still remains tense — all sides will do well to tone down rhetoric and give peace a chance.
It might seem unrealistic to imagine that the coming together of athletes from these nations at what some are calling the “Peace Games” can mean much, in the long run, for tensions in the region. And yet, the opening ceremony in which Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, shook hands with the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, in the VIP box, was in itself a diplomatic achievement. Is it really all that foolish to pin some hope on moments of shared human transcendence offered by the twisting back flips of aerial acrobats, heart-stopping ski jumps or the impossible perfection of a young figure skater’s triple axel?
Why are North and South Korea Divided?
For centuries before that point, the Korean peninsula was a single, unified Korea, ruled by generations of dynastic kingdoms. Occupied by Japan after the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and formally annexed five years later, Korea chafed under Japanese colonial rule for 35 years—until the end of World War II, when its division into two nations began.
In August 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union divided control over the Korean Peninsula. Over the next three years (1945-48), the Soviet Army and its proxies set up a communist regime in the area north of latitude 38˚ N, or the 38th parallel. South of that line, a military government was formed, supported directly by the United States.
While the Soviet policies were widely popular with the bulk of the North’s labourer and peasant population, most middle-class Koreans fled south of the 38th parallel, where the majority of the Korean population resides today. Meanwhile, the US-supported regime in the South clearly favoured anti-communist, rightist elements.
In 1948, the United States called for a United Nations-sponsored vote for all Koreans to determine the future of the peninsula. After the North refused to participate, the South formed its own government in Seoul, led by the strongly anti-communist Syngman Rhee.
The North responded in kind, installing the former communist guerrilla Kim Il Sung as the first premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the capital of Pyongyang.
The Korean War (1950-53), which killed at least 2.5 million people, did little to resolve the question of which regime represented the “true” Korea. It did, however, firmly establish the United States as the permanent bête noire of North Korea, as the US military bombed villages, towns and cities across the northern half of the peninsula.
Opportunity to Denuclearize DPRK?
Since coming to power in 2011, Kim Jong-un has been committed to policy called the “Byungjin line,” which emphasizes parallel goals: economic development and a robust nuclear weapons programme. With one of those goals now ostensibly achieved, Kim has shifted his focus to securing new economic opportunities for N. Korea’s sanction-battered economy. According to South Korea’s central bank, North Korea’s economy grew by 3.9 percent in 2016, but may have contracted in 2017.
Kim now seems to have decided that his best hope for boosting North Korea’s economy, without reversing progress on its nuclear programme, is to weaken the international coalition enforcing the sanctions. His campaign begins with South Korea, where he is attempting to use ethnic nationalism to drive a wedge between that country and its US ally and potentially even to convince it to abandon the alliance altogether.
In the longer term, Kim appears to hope that he can convince the international community that it can co-exist with a nuclear North Korea, much as Pakistan [and India] did.
But South Korea is unlikely to be fooled so easily. Since his inauguration last May, President Moon Jae-in has known that he needed to find a way to mitigate the existential threat of a nuclear war. So he decided to treat the Winter Olympics as an opportunity not only to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but also to spur momentum for dialogue on denuclearization.
While the possibility that South Koreans may be drawn into North Korea’s honey trap cannot be ruled out. Most Koreans, including young people, have had their fill of the North’s provocations, and are highly unlikely to be seduced by Kim’s charm offensive.
More dangerous, some US policymakers continue to entertain the possibility of delivering a “bloody nose” strike to the North – a decision that could cost hundreds of thousands of lives. After all, there is no guarantee that North Korea would be able to discern whether it really is a one-time strike, or a declaration of war. And even if the North could read the Trump administration’s intentions, there is no telling how it would respond.
To help prevent this outcome, and with Kim refusing to discuss denuclearization with his “brethren” in the South, Moon now must figure out how to build up the intra-Korea dialogue to enable talks between North Korea and the US.
Ultimately, it is Trump who needs to seize the opportunity to initiate talks. The fact is that, despite their importance, sanctions alone cannot bring about the outcome desired by the US or its allies. Talks are needed, if only to try to find out the North’s true intentions: is its nuclear programme a defensive or offensive project?