The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics were marked by not only hard-fought competition for medals, but also fierce diplomatic efforts on the sidelines of the sporting event, intent to pave the way for peace on the Korean Peninsula.
With nuclear-armed North Korea’s participation, the Olympics left behind a legacy of peace and reconciliation for the world after a year of tensions heightened by North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests.
The momentum for peace began building after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un offered to send a North Korean delegation to the Olympics in his New Year’s message. It was a rare peace offensive by the reclusive regime, which some saw as an attempt by the North to relax international sanctions against it and drive a wedge between South Korea and the US.
North Korean hockey player Hwang Chung-gum (left) and South Korean bobsled pilot Won Yun-jong carry the Korean Unification Flag during the opening ceremony of the Winter Games at the Olympic Stadium in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, on Feb.9. (Yonhap)
As a result of a series of inter-Korean talks, some 200 delegates of the two Koreas marched together under the Korean Unification Flag at the opening of the PyeongChang Games on Feb. 9, and their women’s hockey players competed together in a joint team -- a highly symbolic show of unity and peace for the two Koreas still technically at war.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said that the joint march of the athletes from the two Koreas sent a powerful message of peace to the world. Pope Francis said that the two Koreas offered hope for a world “where conflicts can be resolved peacefully through dialogue and reciprocal respect.”
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un sent Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, and Kim Yo-jong, his younger sister, to the Olympic opening ceremony. Kim Yo-jong, the first member of North Korea’s ruling dynasty to visit the South, delivered Kim Jong-un’s request for Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang.
North Korea’s presence made the Olympics a venue for high-stakes diplomacy amid hopes for a breakthrough in the drawn-out nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula.
Moon held exchanges with top-level foreign guests from 26 countries on the sidelines of the Olympics. He had meetings with 14 of them, including US Vice President Mike Pence, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to rally support for a peaceful resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue.
The thaw in inter-Korean relations was closely watched by the US, which is leading an international “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea through sanctions to convince the country to give up its nuclear and missile weapons programs.
Pence led the US delegation to the opening ceremony to celebrate its ally’s hosting of the Olympics amid speculations about his possible interaction with North Korean officials during his stay here.
Pence appeared to not so much as glance at North Korean officials in close proximity to him at the opening ceremony. He later revealed to US media that a planned meeting with the North’s delegation had been canceled by the North Koreans at the last minute.
Against this backdrop, attention was again on a possible meeting of officials from North Korea and the US on the sidelines of the closing ceremony.
Kim Yong-chul, vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee and who is thought to be responsible for the torpedoing of a South Korean Navy corvette in 2010, crossed the border into South Korea on Sunday to attend the closing ceremony. Meanwhile, Ivanka Trump, US President Donald Trump’s daughter and senior adviser to the White House, arrived in Seoul on Friday to lead the US delegation to the closing ceremony.
Cheong Wa Dae said in a statement Friday that the North’s participation in the Olympics symbolizes peace and the world earned a “precious chance” to figure out ways to peacefully resolve the nuclear issue and ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.
IOC President Bach also said Sunday he hopes the political world will use this momentum for dialogue created during the Olympics.
“Sport and the IOC have done what we could do,” Bach said.
By Ock Hyun-ju (firstname.lastname@example.org)