Two Koreas, split by war, use Olympics to make rare show of unity
The first time South Korea hosted an Olympics - in 1988 in its capital, Seoul - the International Olympic Committee invited North Korea to talks in advance. The North Koreans showed up with a list of demands.
They not only insisted that half the events be held in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, but they also wanted top billing, pressing for the Games to be renamed the Pyongyang-Seoul Summer Olympics, with the opening ceremony in Pyongyang. When South Korea said no, the North Koreans refused to attend.
“If one gives one finger to North Korea, they will take the whole hand,” the South Korean leader, Chun Doo-hwan, told the I.O.C. president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, in 1986.
It’s a different picture three decades later, as South Korea prepares to host its second Olympics. The North Koreans are not only joining, their athletes will also march with the South Koreans in the opening ceremony and compete side by side in the Koreas’ first joint Olympic team, in women’s ice hockey.
The turnaround underscores the changed role that the Olympics have come to play in the tense relations between the two Koreas, which never signed a peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War. For years, the rival Koreas used the Games to showcase their competing claims to represent the Korean people, and try to one up each other.
More recently, however, the North and South have come to see international sporting events as a chance to defuse tensions, including the current standoff over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The two Koreas have also learned to use Olympic diplomacy to achieve in a small, symbolic way a much bigger goal that eludes them in the real world: a show of unity across the divided Korean Peninsula.
“It is not an impossible dream,” South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, said at the United Nations in September. He said the coming Olympics, which are being held in the South Korean resort of Pyeongchang, “will become a candle that sheds light on peace.”
Even the limited show of cooperation during the Pyeongchang Olympics is the culmination of a long process of sports rapprochement that has tracked the ups and downs of the larger political relationship between the two Koreas. No evidence has surfaced of the wealthy South paying off its impoverished neighbor in exchange for Olympic cooperation, but the advances have come at times when the South was more forthcoming with aid and investment.
Last year, the administration of Mr. Moon offered to donate $8 million to two United Nations humanitarian programs working in North Korea. Mr. Moon suspended the plan after international pushback
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