[PyeongChang 2018] Will unified Korea in PyeongChang herald a new phase for the inter-Korean relations?

By Yoon Min-sik
  • Published : Feb 12, 2018 - 18:15
  • Updated : Feb 12, 2018 - 18:15
Hours before the opening ceremony of PyeongChang Winter Games last Friday, President Moon Jae-in, at the dinner reception, expressed his hopes that the Olympics will play a part in bringing peace to the ever-turbulent Korean Peninsula.

“You will all witness fair and beautiful competition, and be at the center of peace on the Korean Peninsula,” he said at the ice-breaking ceremony to the guests, which included IOC chief Thomas Bach, North Korea’s nominal head of state Kim Young-nam and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “I want our future generation to remember this day, and to record it as ‘the Winter Games in which peace started.’”

From the start, the host country of South Korea has been touting the PyeongChang Games as one of peace, and that it will ease the growing inter-Korea tension. But it is clear that it will take more than Moon’s ceremonial handshake with the North’s ceremonial leader, or with Kim Yo-jong, the powerful sister of Pyongyang’s actual leader Kim Jong-un, to sufficiently put out a fuse started by the Kim regime’s nuclear ambitions.

Sports diplomacy

Kim Young-nam’s eyes welled up as the two Koreas made a joint entrance during Friday’s opening ceremony, hoisting the Korean Unification flag that colors the entire peninsula in single navy color. The elderly politician’s sentiments notwithstanding, this was not the first joint entrance of the two Koreas.

Kim Young-nam, second from left, watches North Korea`s Samjiyeon Orchestra`s performance in Seoul on Feb. 11, 2018. Kim sits between Hyon Song-wol, the head of the Samjiyeon Orchestra, and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korea`s leader Kim Jong-un. (Yonhap)

The attempts for the two Koreas to make amends via sports dates back to 1963, when they talked about creating a unified team for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and ultimately failed. They also met four times over three years leading up to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, but to no avail.

Not only did Pyongyang boycott the Seoul Olympics, it almost spoiled the festivities by hijacking and blowing up a Korean Air Lines passenger plane in 1987.

The high-level talks in 1990, however, paved the way for sports diplomacy which bore fruit with the first-ever Korean unified team in the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships. The unified Korean team’s improbable Olympic gold win over supposedly “unbeatable” China is well remembered here and was made into a 2012 sports drama film “As One.”

With former President Kim Dae-jung implementing the “Sunshine Policy,” centered on aid and diplomacy rather than open hostility, inter-Korea relations began to thaw.

For the first time ever, the national teams of two Koreas made a joint entrance in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, which was agreed upon during the summit between Kim and former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.

Between Sydney and PyeongChang, South and North Korea entered together in major international sports events 10 times.

Olympic truce?

Despite holding hands under the same flag, North Korea has never let down on provocations.

Just two years after the 2000 Summit, the honeymoon phase of the two Koreas was abruptly interrupted by maritime confrontation known as the Second Battle of Yeonpyeong. The conflict, which was sparked by a North Korean vessel crossing the de facto maritime border between the Koreas, left six South Koreans and 13 North Koreans dead.

From 2000 to 2007, the two Koreas made a joint entrance to an international sports event every year except 2007. North Korea withdrew from the Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003, stepped into the inter-Korea borders a number of times, declared itself a nuclear nation in 2005, and conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. 

North Korean taekwondo demonstration team members and South Korean team cheer each other after performing together at the Joint Taekwondo performance of World Taekwondo and International Taekwondo Federation, Seoul, South Korea February 12, 2018. (Reuters)

Pyongyang has never ceased to provoke its southern neighbor even as they joined hands in sports. But the number of provocations, particularly armed ones, did shoot up when the two Koreas’ ties were the thinnest. The year of 2010 saw arguably one of the worst armed provocations by the North, as it sank South Korean corvette Cheonan, killing 46 seamen.

Although the joint entrance in the sports events failed to stop the North from provoking the international community, the goodwill gesture reflected a breathing room in the otherwise stifling inter-Korean tension.

Many experts said that the North’s participation in PyeongChang Games will help ease the ongoing regional tension.

In a survey conducted by Hyundai Research Institute on 92 Korean experts in security, diplomacy and unification, it was revealed that 85.9 percent of them regarded North Korea’s participation in the Olympics as positive.

About 56.5 percent thought that the inter-Korea tensions will improve after the Olympics, while 73.9 percent said Seoul and Pyongyang were likely to actively attempt to mend ties.

Chung Sung-jang, director of unification strategy studies at the Sejong Institute, said that the North appears to switch its position from open hostility to possibly compromise on nuclear and missile programs. He pointed to Kim Yo-jong inviting President Moon to meet with her brother.

“Moon should -- even before the PyeongChang Games wrap up -- deploy an envoy to Pyongyang to see where the North stands on the nuclear and missile issues, and to work with the US, China, Japan and Russia,” he said,

By Yoon Min-sik (