Pyeongchang Olympics are icy path to warmer Korea re­la­tions

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

Tears and hugs af­ter North and South Korean women won the 1991 team ta­ble ten­nis world cham­pi­onships. A stand­ing ova­tion when ath­letes from the two Koreas marched to­gether to open the 2000 Syd­ney Olympics. A selfie taken by a South Korean gym­nast with her North Korean op­po­nent that went vi­ral at last year’s Rio de Janeiro Games.

Seven months ahead of the Pyeongchang Olympics, South Korea’s new lib­eral Pres­i­dent Moon Jae-in hopes the first Win­ter Games on Korean soil could pro­duce more of th­ese feel­good sparks of seem­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and pave the wave for deep en­gage­ment to ease the ri­vals’ 72-year stand­off.

In a good de­vel­op­ment for Moon, IOC Pres­i­dent Thomas Bach on Mon­day ex­pressed his sup­port for Moon’s over­ture while North Korea re­cently al­lowed its taek­wondo demon­stra­tion team to per­form in the South in the Koreas’ first sports ex­changes since Moon’s May 10 inau­gu­ra­tion.

But there is also plenty of skep­ti­cism about Moon’s ef­forts be­cause of a se­ri­ous es­ca­la­tion in North Korean nu­clear and mis­sile ar­se­nals North Korea yes­ter­day test-fired an in­ter­me­di­ate-range mis­sile likely ca­pa­ble of strik­ing Alaska - and a weak North Korean win­ter sports pro­gram that sent only two ath­letes to the 2010 Van­cou­ver Games and none to the 2014 Sochi Games. Syd­ney and Rio were both Sum­mer Olympics. North Korea’s only IOC mem­ber, Chang Ung, said last week that co­op­er­a­tion on the Pyeongchang Games could prove hard con­sid­er­ing the short­age of time and dif­fi­cult pol­i­tics. What fol­lows is an ex­am­i­na­tion of South Korea’s at­tempt to make North Korea a key part of the Olympics set for Feb. 9-25.

Dur­ing a speech at the world taek­wondo cham­pi­onship in the South that drew Chang and North Korean ath­letes, Moon ap­pealed for North Korea’s Olympic par­tic­i­pa­tion while talk­ing about the power of sports and cit­ing the his­toric “ping­pong diplo­macy” be­tween the United States and China in the 1970s.

“I think (North Korea’s Olympic at­ten­dance) would greatly con­trib­ute in re­al­iz­ing Olympic val­ues, which are about bring­ing hu­man­ity to­gether and pro­mot­ing world peace,” Moon said dur­ing the event’s open­ing cer­e­mony on June 24.

Moon has pre­vi­ously said he wants North Korean ath­letes to visit the South by cross­ing over the heav­ily for­ti­fied land bor­der be­tween the Koreas - a deeply sym­bolic event that would ex­cite fren­zied me­dia cov­er­age. He has also pro­posed hold­ing a pre-Olympic cel­e­bra­tory event at the North’s scenic Di­a­mond Moun­tain, where the two Koreas once ran a tourism pro­gram.

Moon’s sports min­is­ter, Do Jong-hwan, told law­mak­ers re­cently that South Korea was also study­ing a joint women’s ice hockey team with North Korea for the Pyeongchang Games. Other ideas: us­ing a re­cently built North Korean ski re­sort as a train­ing site and adding North Korea to the Olympic torch re­lay route.

Dur­ing their meet­ing at Moon’s pres­i­den­tial palace in Seoul on Mon­day, Bach said he ac­tively sup­ports Moon’s push for Korean peace and said it’s in ac­cor­dance with the Olympic spirit, ac­cord­ing to Moon’s of­fice. But some of the mea­sures floated by the Moon gov­ern­ment re­quire for­mal IOC ap­provals, and Pyeongchang or­ga­niz­ers say noth­ing has been of­fi­cially de­ter­mined yet.

Chang sug­gested it may be too late to try to field a sin­gle Olympic team, say­ing it took five to six months or 22 rounds of in­ter-Korean talks be­fore field­ing a sin­gle women’s ta­ble ten­nis team in 1991. He also ques­tioned how much sports could im­pact re­la­tions be­tween the Koreas. “Did ta­ble ten­nis im­prove re­la­tions be­tween the United States and China? Ping­pong was able to work as a cat­a­lyst be­cause a po­lit­i­cal foun­da­tion had al­ready been cre­ated. The world was say­ing ping­pong made things work, but that wasn’t the case,” Chang told South Korean re­porters last week. “Pol­i­tics are al­ways above sports.”


North Korea is not strong in win­ter sports. The only North Korean ath­letes who are thought to have a re­al­is­tic shot at mak­ing the 2018 Olympics are a North Korean pairs fig­ure skat­ing team. Even if they qual­ify, it will mean less than 10 North Kore­ans - two ath­letes plus coaches and of­fi­cials - would come to Pyeongchang. This small squad - or no ath­letes at all - could make it dif­fi­cult to cre­ate a mood of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Still, South Korean of­fi­cials are look­ing at other ways to get North Korea in­volved.

Pyeongchang’s or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee said it’s dis­cussing with South Korean gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials whether to ask the IOC and other in­ter­na­tional sports bod­ies to give North Korea spe­cial en­tries if no North Korean ath­letes qual­ify for the Olympics.

South Korea is also re­view­ing whether to hold out-of-com­pe­ti­tion matches dur­ing the Olympics that would al­low North Korean ath­letes to com­pete, ac­cord­ing to Moon’s Uni­fi­ca­tion Min­istry. The South’s or­ga­niz­ing com­mit­tee said spe­cial en­tries and ex­tra games have not been al­lowed at past Win­ter Games.


Re­la­tions be­tween the Koreas are dis­mal as the North pur­sues its nu­clear am­bi­tions. Since tak­ing power in late 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has con­ducted three atomic test ex­plo­sions and or­dered a raft of bal­lis­tic-mis­sile launches as part of his stated goal of build­ing nu­clear mis­siles ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the con­ti­nen­tal United States. Moon’s con­ser­va­tive pre­de­ces­sors re­sponded by sus­pend­ing ma­jor aid ship­ments and cross-bor­der co­op­er­a­tion projects. Moon has pledged to im­prove ties and promised to use the Pyeongchang Games to ease cross-bor­der an­i­mosi­ties. But any big North Korean weapon test close to the Pyeongchang Games could trig­ger strong anti-North sen­ti­ments both at home and abroad and make it hard for Moon to press ahead with his over­tures. “What’s most im­por­tant is that North Korea not act in a way that earns Pres­i­dent Moon crit­i­cism when he makes a ges­ture of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion,” said Jung Moon-hyun, a sports science pro­fes­sor at Chung­nam Na­tional Uni­ver­sity in South Korea.

At the height of the Cold War, sports were an­other bat­tle­field be­tween the Koreas. North Korea boy­cotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics, both held in Seoul.

But sports ex­changes briefly flour­ished in the early 1990s be­fore a nu­clear cri­sis erupted. This co­op­er­a­tion in­cluded the North-South women’s ta­ble ten­nis team cham­pi­onship over China in 1991, and a uni­fied world youth boys’ soc­cer team that reached the quar­ter­fi­nals later that year. Th­ese were the last uni­fied Korean sports teams, but the ri­vals found other ways to co­op­er­ate. Af­ter the lead­ers of North and South Korea met for land­mark sum­mit talks in Py­ongyang in June 2000, ath­letes from the Koreas walked be­hind a blue-and-white “uni­fi­ca­tion” flag for the first time at the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Syd­ney Sum­mer Games. This hap­pened at other ma­jor in­ter­na­tional sports events, but the prac­tice stopped af­ter the 2007 Asian Win­ter Games in Chuangchun, China.

De­spite ter­ri­ble po­lit­i­cal ties amid the nu­clear stand­off, cross-bor­der sports ex­changes be­tween the Koreas did not dis­ap­pear en­tirely.

North Korea at­tended the 2014 Asian Games held in In­cheon, South Korea. At the close of the games, three top Py­ongyang of­fi­cials made a sur­prise visit and held the Koreas’ high­est-level face-to-face talks in five years.

This spring, North Korea’s women’s ice hockey team came to the South to take part in the group rounds of the world cham­pi­onships, while the South’s na­tional women’s soc­cer team trav­eled to the North for an Asian Cup qual­i­fy­ing match. One of the feel-good high­lights of the Rio Games last year came when a 17-year-old South Korean gym­nast named Lee Eun-ju took a selfie with North Korea’s Hong Un Jong as they trained for com­pe­ti­tion. The photo cap­tured global head­lines, and Bach de­scribed it as a “great ges­ture.” It’s far from cer­tain whether Pyeongchang will have any sim­i­lar ges­tures.—AP

TURIN: In this Feb. 10, 2006 file photo, Korea flag-bear­ers Bora Lee and Jong-In Lee, car­ry­ing a uni­fi­ca­tion flag, lead their teams into the sta­dium dur­ing the 2006 Win­ter Olympics open­ing cer­e­mony in Turin, Italy. The two Koreas con­tin­ued their joint march tra­di­tion at the Turin Win­ter Olympics. Sports ties be­tween the ri­val Koreas of­ten mir­ror their rocky po­lit­i­cal ties. — AP

DAEGU: In this Aug 28, 2003 file photo, North Korean women hold na­tional flags to cheer at the Daegu Univer­si­ade Games in Daegu, South Korea. Sports ties be­tween the ri­val Koreas of­ten mir­ror their rocky po­lit­i­cal ties. North Korea par­tic­i­pated in the Uni­ver­sity Games in Daegu, South Korea in 2003, and its ath­letes walked again with South Korean coun­ter­parts at the open­ing and clos­ing cer­e­monies. — AP

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