On January 9, 2018, teams representing North and South Korea entered the 2018 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony marching under the Korean Unification Flag. Among the athletes were North and South Korean ice hockey players who played on a unified women’s team. The team ended its historic run with five straight losses on January 20. This is not the first time there has been a North-South collaboration in the Olympics. At the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, North Korea and South Korea marched as one nation at the opening ceremonies, but competed separately.
North Korea’s partnership with South Korea in the Winter Olympics has been perceived as a possible détente between the two Koreas amidst escalating tensions. Michelle Cho, a Korea Foundation Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Studies at McGill University, interprets North Korea’s participation as an attempt to step away from isolation towards integration with the international community. “The motives for joining this Winter Olympics are pretty straightforwardly to reduce tensions. […] It’s an effort on the part of North Korea to maintain its autonomy but still integrate itself a bit more. The image [of North Korea as an isolated country] is overstated, [and comes] from the North American perspective,” said Cho.
Among the North Korea delegation was supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong, and North Korea’s elder figurehead Kim Yong-nam. Cho believes that North Korea made an important gesture in choosing a delegation of officials that spanned old and new generations. “I think [Kim Yong-nam’s] presence is meant to inspire feelings of fraternity, and [cater to] the older generation in South Korea, who care more about reunification because they have memories of a unified Korea, or they have family members [in North Korea],” said Cho.
However, North Korea’s participation in the Olympics could also be interpreted as an attempt at political gymnastics to increase international approval for its regime, according to T. V. Paul, a McGill University professor of International Relations: “North Korea did a very smart thing […] [It] did what other countries have done, which is charm offensive, diplomatic offensive, soft power […] so it’s a very clever, calculated move. But it may not last long.” He added that another important aspect of the Olympics is personal contact: “It is an extraordinary show, because here you have people-to-people contact, [which is usually] very poor; you don’t have families visiting [..] so it’s an extraordinary symbolic act.”
Responses to the North Korean delegation are mixed among the people of the host country. Although many enthusiastically welcomed the hundreds of performers, athletes, and cheerleaders in the North Korean delegation, some were wary of possible hidden motives and remain unconvinced of a North-South rapprochement.
A reason for such jadedness could be that North-South relations have always been dependent on the political climate. In 1998, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung announced the Sunshine Policy towards North Korea, which aimed to mitigate the gap in economic power and to restore lost communication between the two nations. However, some criticised South Korea for maintaining a cooperative policy towards the North while provocative acts such as nuclear and missile tests occurred.
The Sunshine Policy was formally abandoned by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in 2010, and throughout his and Park Geun-hye’s presidency, North-South tensions deteriorated to those of the Cold War-era. Since the 2017 presidential election, newly elected President Moon Jae-In has been actively pushing for denuclearization by conducting joint US-Korea military exercises and supporting United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear program. At the same time, he has promised reconciliation and dialogue with the North. His decision to allow athletes from both sides of the border to march under the Korean Unification Flag and to play as a joint women’s ice hockey team has been criticized as “pandering” to North Korea.
North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics has been controversial from the start. Initially, international news outlets such as CNN, BBC, and ABC reacted positively to the arrival of the North Korean delegation, but that reaction was immediately met with backlash from other media outlets, who accused them of adding fuel to North Korea’s media campaign. Others have criticized the International Olympic Committee for allowing a nation rife with human rights abuses to compete.
“I think that it’s pretty characteristic of the function that North Korea plays in Western media because they’re always being reported on in these extreme terms. It’s very hard to find a moderate perspective on North Korea; although those kinds of stories exist, [they’re] in specialist papers or in academia. So if you just go by North American mass media, it’s very polarized,” said Cho.
Historical amnesia also plays a part in the common depiction of North Korea as the ultimate evil in media, without regard for the responsibilities of other countries in creating this standstill. According to Cho, those who see the United States as a benevolent superpower forget that the United States’ previous attempts to contain North Korea had left behind a blazing trail of problems, including great loss of Korean civilian lives and the creation of a military dictatorship in South Korea. She explains, “A lot of Americans think of North Korea as fickle; or they don’t understand the motivations behind North Koreans’ animosity towards the U.S. And it’s because they don’t know anything about the Korean War; they don’t realize that the American military […] bombed North Korea for three years and destroyed everything and all the existing infrastructure, and killed many people.”
Recent North Korean diplomatic relations have been as unpredictable as before the Olympic Games, if not moreso. In his New Year’s Day speech, Kim Jong-un announced suddenly that he was ready to “melt the frozen North-South relations.” However, this in no way suggests a positive development in international relations. The Trump administration’s lack of commitment to diplomacy is also not conducive to building a trusting relationship. Threats of military strikes, isolation tactics, and diplomacy often come at the same time, sending mixed messages to North Korea. Paul believes that there is no quick solution to rising tensions.
Sports events have long been an outlet for international relations. From serving as propaganda for the Nazis in 1936 Germany, to playing a part in dismantling apartheid in post-war Africa, to fostering diplomacy between the U.S. and China through ping-pong, major sports events have been an important diplomatic tool, for better or for worse. Cho believes the Winter Olympics have been beneficial in alleviating international tensions.
“I think that it’s been very helpful to have this event to occur at this moment of escalating tensions. Who knows what will happen with the U.S., but I think the U.S. needs to step back a bit because the global public opinion has been swayed a bit, even though there are still a lot of skeptics […] It happened at a good time, and it has been reassuring for a lot of people, myself included, that North Korea is interested in de-escalating,” said Cho.
While a thaw in relations can be encouraging, one-off events like the Olympics can only benefit international relations if countries are willing to follow up with peacemaking efforts, according to Paul: “It is an important step, if it is followed through, so that is the sub-clause you have to put there. It has to be followed through with steps, concrete steps, which will mean more engagement with other forms of official and non-official NGOs, people-to-people contacts, and trying to have a diplomatic engagement.”