A seemingly endless series of North Korean military provocations and escalating war threats notwithstanding, hopes remain high for better days ahead for sports exchanges on the divided Korean Peninsula.
And an upcoming cross-border visit by North Korean taekwondo athletes is expected to further fuel optimism.
On June 23, the North Korea-led International Taekwondo Federation will bring a demonstration team to South Korea, via Beijing, for the World Taekwondo Federation World Taekwondo Championships in Muju, some 240 kilometers south of Seoul. The competition runs from June 24-30.
Demonstration teams of the WTF and the North Korea-led International Taekwondo Federation perform during the opening ceremony of the WTF World Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, on May 13, 2015. (WTF)
The team will be led by ITF President Ri Yong-son and will include 12 North Korean performers -- 10 men and two women. It will also have instructors from the Korean Taekwondo Committee, the North's governing body of taekwondo, and two journalists from Pyongyang covering the event. Chang Ung, the ITF's honorary life president and a member of the International Olympic Committee, will also be on hand.
The demonstration team will take the stage during the world championships' opening and closing ceremonies in Muju on June 24 and 30. It will also perform at two other cities, Jeonju, some 50 kilometers west of Muju, and Seoul, on June 26 and 28.
The WTF, headquartered in Seoul with the South Korean leader Choue Chung-won, is the official world governing body of taekwondo, as sanctioned by the IOC. The ITF, based in Vienna, is recognized by the North Korean government.
The two sides held a joint performance during the 2015 WTF world championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia.
This will be the ITF's first visit to South Korea since April 2007. The WTF is expected to seek a reciprocal visit to Pyongyang in September, when the ITF will organize its own world championships.
Their trip comes on the heels of two cross-border trips by athletes from both sides of the heavily fortified border.
In April, the South Korean women's football team played in Pyongyang for the first time, and South Korea held the heavily favored North Korea to a 1-1 draw at the qualifying event for the
2018 Asian Football Confederation Women's Asian Cup, en route to earning the sole ticket to the continental tournament at stake.
Around the same time, the North Korean women's hockey team competed in Gangneung, some 230 kilometers east of Seoul in Gangwon Province, at the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship Division II Group A. South Korea shut out North Korea 3-0 and went on to finish first at the competition. North Korea finished fourth among six participants.
Prior to these visits, inter-Korean exchanges at all levels had been virtually non-existent under conservative administrations.
About a month after the two competitions, liberal-minded President Moon Jae-in took office. Moon was expected to assume a conciliatory stance on Pyongyang, and the government has approved more than a dozen requests by non-government organizations to come in contact with North Koreans.
Cross-border trips by South Koreans require both the Seoul government's approval and the North's consent.
Demonstration teams of the WTF and the North Korea-lead International Taekwondo Federation pose for pictures after their joint performance during the opening ceremony of the 2015 WTF World Taekwondo Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, on May 12, 2015. (WTF)
North Korea last week rejected civic and religious groups' offers to resume exchanges in protest to Seoul's endorsement of international sanctions against Pyongyang. The decision dampened Moon's efforts to encourage civilian engagements, and the North's unceasing provocations also haven't helped.
Still, the taekwondo exchange is expected to go ahead as planned, and the WTF believes the occasion will help ease tensions on the peninsula.
An official with the WTF noted that "Protocol of Accord," a landmark agreement signed between the WTF and the ITF in August 2014, deals with exchanges of each organization's demonstration teams.
The document states: "WTF and ITF will form respectively its own taekwondo demonstration team consisting of multinational practitioners and make the active promotion of taekwondo through the world with their international tour all over the world, including southern and northern parts of Korea, the motherland of taekwondo, according to the timing and maturity of the circumstances."
The WTF official said at the foundation of the agreement was the belief that taekwondo has always had "a single root."
"The ultimate goal of our agreement was to contribute to world peace," the official said. "With this upcoming sporting event, we'll be able to provide a breakthrough in the current state of tension."
He added the WTF will discuss with the ITF taking the exchange a step further and have demonstration teams from both organizations go on a world tour.
"After our reciprocal visits in 2017, we're hoping we could hold more joint performances in a third country outside the peninsula," the official added.
George Vitale, spokesman for the ITF, said the upcoming trip should help encourage further inter-Korean sporting exchanges, adding, "taekwondo can and should lead the way."
"Tenets (of taekwondo) require strict adherence to a good moral conduct. So taekwondo leaders in Seoul and Pyongyang start with this basic premise," Vitale said in an e-mail. "I think they will make ideal leaders to pave the way for other inter-Korean sports exchanges. Since Korea has given their greatest gift of Taekwon-Do to the entire world, there are many non-Koreans ready, willing and able to assist."
Qualifying his remarks that he's "only a taekwondo man, not a politician," Vitale, an American, said it's up to the political leaders to make the most of this "symbolic opportunity."
"This historic trip has great potential to create a bit more understanding and possibly help some overdue healing to start or continue," said Vitale, who insisted he wasn't speaking for the American government or any other government entity. "Once given the opportunity, like we have now, we hope to make a very good impression that can hopefully lead to other opportunities."
Taekwondowon in Muju, North Jeolla Province, the venue for the 2017 World Taekwondo Federation World Taekwondo Championships from June 24-30, 2017. (North Jeolla Provincial Government)
The current development has also fuelled hopes that the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea's PyeongChang will provide another platform for the two nations to engage in sports exchange.
During the North Korean women's hockey team's visit to Gangneung in April, a North Korean sports ministry official told Choi Moon-soon, governor of Gangwon Province, that Pyongyang would try to send "as many athletes as possible" to PyeongChang.
And therein lies the caveat: before any talks on engagement can be held, North Korea will actually have to qualify for the competition.
North Korea has grabbed 54 medals across 10 Summer Olympics, including eight gold medals over the past three editions. It has struggled in the Winter Olympics, though, with just a silver and a bronze medal to show for from its eight events.
The last medal, a bronze in short track, came in 1992. North Korea didn't participate in the most recent Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
For PyeongChang, North Korea has its one last shot in pairs figure skating. Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik just missed out on the qualification at the International Skating Union World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, and will take one more crack at an Olympic berth at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, in September. Four last spots will be up for grabs.
Chang Ung, then president of the International Taekwondo Federation (left) shakes hands with WTF President Choue Chung-won (right), with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach in the middle, in Nanjing, China, on the sidelines of the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. Chang and Chung signed "Protocol of Accord," an agreement detailing efforts to promote cooperation between the two organizations, on Aug. 25, 2014. (WTF)
Nancy Park, a spokeswoman for PyeongChang 2018, said the organizing committee is hoping the North Korean duo will qualify for the Olympics.
"We would welcome any athletes from around the world. Of course, North Korea is no exception," she said. "The first thing we want to see is for them to be able to participate as qualified athletes. Once they qualify, we usually anticipate them attending the Games."
In case North Korea fails to have any athlete qualify for the Winter Olympics, Park said PyeongChang could have further discussions with the IOC "as to what kind of things we can do to show solidarity with North Korea."
Discussing the possibility of a joint Korean march at the opening ceremony is admittedly premature -- it happened at Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004 -- and co-hosting some events with North Korea this close to the Olympics is out of the question.
PyeongChang long ago rejected calls for splitting events with North Korea or any other nation, for that matter.
Still, in Park's words, "everything is on the table" in terms of what can be done symbolically.
"There are a lot of different ideas being put forth," she said.
"The new government is very progressive on North Korea, wanting to use the 2018 Games as a very good platform for communication as well. There are a lot of things that I am sure will be transpiring in the future and I am looking forward to that." (Yonhap)