North Korea and South Korea have been recently engaged in negotiations for the first time in 2 years. This military crisis hotline has the potential of lowering the likelihood of what was once believed to be an ‘inevitable war’ starting. The temporary halt put on the U.S. – South Korea annual joint military exercises until after the Winter Olympics could also play a role in making this round of negotiations stand out from the previously failed attempts at shaping a comprehensive peace accord in the Korean peninsula.
Nonetheless, in the latest series of discussions between the North and the South, the emergence of an element was introduced, an element that a few decades back could not have belonged to even those with the wildest stretches of imagination. This element is sport.During the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne on the 20th of January, it has been decided that South Korea and North Korea would be pulling their forces together to send joint women’s ice hockey team under the name Korea in which three North Koreans have to be on the ice at all times. They will be represented by the unification flag throughout the Winter Olympics. Additionally, Pyeongyang will be sending various athletes to the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which will be accompanied by a Taekwondo demonstration team, a few cheerleading squads and numerous observers.In total, we are looking at 22 athletes, 15 women and seven men – accompanied by 24 coaches and 21 media representatives. What is more, 140 musicians and performers and more than 200 cheerleaders will be accompanying them.
Acknowledging the force of sport as one of the most unifying tools for reaching a state of peace is of paramount importance. In general terms, sport creates an environment where people of all ideologies, nationalities and social statuses come together to work towards the same goal – to win – which makes it a truly win-win situation. It’s a collective experience, which manages to use what would traditionally be considered non-conventional means for establishing peace, namely non-verbal means of communication and direct physical contact. We have witnessed a number of successful initiatives of integrating former child soldiers back into the society using sport as the main apparatus. We have seen sport being an enabler of sustainable development in all its forms, contributing to the advancement of human rights, the empowerment of youth and women and the increase in health and economic development.
In the case of the Korean long-standing issue, sport could imaginably become that panacea the Peninsula has been attempting to find. South Korean president Moon Jae strongly endorses the power sport has in contributing to an ending of the stalemate by arguing that he believes in “the strength of sports that has been establishing peace”. His latest pose with a North Korean taekwondo team at the World Taekwondo Federation’s World Taekwondo Championships is just one of the most recent displays of confidence in the force of sport in alleviating part of the ailing status-quo. Furthermore, it is important to note that these current talks have set the ground for a consecutive set of talks “related to improving South-North ties”as relayed by the BBC.
There is of course another probability – less popular but worthy of a mention – which is that North Korea is not using these sporting events as a path to reconciliation, but as a means to further politicize the South Korean society and break its ties with the U.S.As far as the latter is concerned, Park Se-kyung, a television producer, discounts the view that North Korea is waging a “charm offensive” intended to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US, claiming that the situation and the opportunities it presents need to be seen for what they are, namely a small step in the fight for progress and reconciliation of the two Koreas through ‘diplomacy by sport’. Nevertheless, in this unoptimistic case scenario, South Korea is not portrayed as an angel either but it’s rather seen an opportunistic actor trying to cement its status of OECD member and, most importantly, trying to appear as a mature, legitimate regional force which manages to involve the alien North Koreans in a major sporting event.
All things considered, regardless of the differing opinions on the North-South Korean discussions and their hidden intentions, it becomes apparent that these are situated in a very interesting time sphere from a geopolitical standpoint. If anything, “it’s a great start”, as President Trump has stated, which has managed to break the two-year political deadlock between the two countries and showcases a major capacity to move the negotiations further.