Olympics are icy path to warmer re­la­tions

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

SEOUL, South Korea — 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 feel-good sparks of seem­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and pave the way 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 on Tues­day test-fired a 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.


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.


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.

File Photo/AP

North Korea's Song Chol Ri car­ries the flag dur­ing the open­ing cer­e­mony Feb. 12, 2010, for the Van­cou­ver Olympics in Van­cou­ver, Canada.

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