North Korea boycotted the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, which consolidated the prevalence of the South’s affluent capitalist system over the North’s impoverished communist regime. Since then, Pyongyang has changed its mind and sent its delegations to three international sporting events held in South Korea ― the 2002 Busan Asian Games, the 2003 Daegu Universiade and the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon.
Most people here probably have little memory of how many medals North Korean athletes won in those competitions. But they may vividly remember the eye-catching performance by the North’s cheering squad, nicknamed an “army of beauties.”
Pyongyang sent 288 young female cheerleaders to the 2002 Asiad and dispatched similar-sized cheering groups to the two other events hosted by the South in the following years. The South Korean media and public were nearly enchanted with the charming cheerleaders selected from all across North Korea.
Therefore, Pyongyang may well hope to create a similar syndrome during the Asian Games to be held in the South Korean port city of Incheon from Sept. 19 to Oct. 4.
In May, Pyongyang said it would send about 150 athletes to the event and later that they would be accompanied by an unspecific number of cheerleaders. During inter-Korean talks last week on matters related to their participation, however, the North proposed sending 350 players and the same number of cheerleaders. The proposal apparently reflected its intent to forge an atmosphere conducive to easing the principled stance of President Park Geun-hye’s government in Seoul.
But the North Korean delegates walked out of the meeting at the truce village of Panmunjeom as their South Korean counterparts kept the stance of following international standards to break from Seoul’s practice of offering financial support for sporting delegations from the North. A day after the talks broke down, Pyongyang threatened to pull out of the upcoming Asian Games, blaming Seoul for making “absurd” demands.
But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Sunday revealed his wish to send a delegation accompanied by the largest-ever group of cheerleaders to the Incheon Asiad, saying their participation would offer an important occasion in improving relations between the two Koreas and removing distrust between them. He was quoted by the North’s state-run news agency as further saying “it is our principled stand that the inviolable sports should not be a political bargaining chip of the undesirable forces.”
His remarks, however, should be applied to the North’s perception and attitude that remain unchanged.
With Seoul officials suggesting that the issue of cost is still open to negotiation, the North might eventually send a delegation of athletes and a cheering squad ― perhaps on a slightly reduced scale ― with financial assistance from the South this time too. But it might prove the fourth drama to be staged by its selected beauties would no longer be so popular with the South Korean audience, who are jaded by Pyongyang’s worn-out strategy of mixing a series of provocative acts with some conciliatory gestures. Pyongyang should fundamentally change its attitude if it really wants to boost inter-Korean cooperation.