NK Universiade pullout dampens effort to engage
North Korea’s decision to boycott the upcoming Gwangju Universiade is an unfortunate one tying sports with politics.
On June 20 the Gwangju Universiade organizing committee received an email from Jon Kuk-man, the chief of North Korea’s university sports federation, saying that North Korea would not be participating in the Universiade because of Tuesday’s opening of the Seoul office for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. Pyongyang had earlier planned to send 75 athletes and 33 officials to the sports competition for university students.
While the organizing committee held out hopes that the communist state would not completely withdraw from the game and Gwangju Mayor Yoon Jang-hyun said that he would wait until the last minute for North Korea to participate, it seems unlikely that Pyongyang will be sending a team. North Korea said in March that it would compete in seven events, but missed the June 3 registration deadline as well as the late registration deadline on June 15. North Korea’s withdrawal from the Gwangju Universiade is a step backward from the practice of separating politics and sports. Even when relations between Seoul and Pyongyang were cool, sports exchanges often continued, serving as valuable opportunities for official exchanges as well as exchanges at the civilian level.
Last year, North Korea sent a large contingent to the Incheon Asian Games and top-level officials attended the closing ceremony, signaling a possible thaw in relations. In April 1991, during the World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan, the two Koreas played together under the name of Korea, flying the flag of the Korean Peninsula. As the players stood on the podiums with medals, the folk song “Arirang” filled the venue. The two countries also fielded a unified soccer team in the FIFA World Youth Championship in Lisbon in June 1991.
North Korea’s withdrawal from the Gwangju Universiade has put a damper on Seoul’s plans to hold a joint event to mark the 70th anniversary of liberation from Japan. The Gwangju Universiade was seen as an opportune occasion for such a joint event, and efforts were made to form a unified team, invite North Korean cheerleaders and light the Universiade torch at the border village Panmunjeom. Those efforts have now come to naught. This is an abridged version of an editorial published by The Korea Herald on June 23.