- North and South Korea to hold talks Tuesday
- Two countries technically still at war
- Winter Olympics runs from February 9-15
“The Olympics are loaded with politics but, theoretically, it’s a non-political atmosphere, even in the old days of the Cold War.”
Sport underpinning talks
For South and North Korea, two countries still technically at war, sport has, throughout the years, helped ease tensions on the peninsula and after a year of escalating hostility over Pyongyang’s ballistic missile programme, it is next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea which has given the two countries reason to talk again.
South Korea’s unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, has already said he hopes the delegations can discuss the North’s participation at the PyeongChang Games “as well as other issues of mutual interest for the improvement of inter-Korean ties.”
It should be of no surprise that it is sport, specifically the Olympics, which is underpinning these talks. After all, the Olympic flame burns during a Games to remind people of the Olympic Truce, the ancient Greek tradition of a temporary peace between warring states competing at the Games.
For all their differences, the North and South have shared interests: a desire to bolster their reputations, to wave their flags in jubilation and to make a gesture before the watching world.
“Any effort which makes it look like the Koreans aren’t fighting each other all the time, both Pyongyang and Seoul are going to embrace that,” said Madden.
“They will both look good. South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un are looking for a photo opportunity from this.”
Sport and politics entwined
To solely focus on US President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed and headlines of impending nuclear annihilation would be to overlook the fact that these warring nations often compete against each other in a sporting field, and even put on a united front during the so-called Sunshine Policy of South Korea’s liberal governments of 1998 to 2008.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, athletes of the Koreas walked as one for the first time in an Olympic opening ceremony under a “unification flag” which displayed a blue map of the Korean peninsula. They entered the Olympic stadium to the tune of a Korean folk song.
Four years later, in Athens, they marched again and did so in 2006 at the Turin Winter Olympics, though athletes from the two countries have not walked together since the Asian Winter Games in 2007.
If sport and politics are entwined the Olympics can’t always be a facilitator of peace.
The International Olympic Committee says it aims to “contribute to building a peaceful and better world,” but throughout history there have been serious repercussions when sport and politics meet head-on.
Athletes are a ‘prized elite group’
North Korea, a country which excels in boxing and weightlifting, has often performed well at the Summer Olympics, winning 54 medals, including 16 golds. According to one calculation, the country is seventh in terms of overall medal success relative to economic output.
It is less successful at the Winter Olympics. Having competed in seven of the last 12 Winter Games, the north has won just two medals.
Since he assumed power in 2011, Kim has given sport greater prominence in the communist state and, according to state media, spending on sport in the nation’s annual budgets has risen faster than in most other areas.
“There are a lot more discussion about athletic culture and sport in North Korean state media than there ever was under his father,” explains Washington-based Madden.
“One of the first acts Kim implemented when he came into power was to create a national commission called the Ministry of Physical Culture and Sports and put some of the country’s top leaders on that.
“North Korea is such a pariah state, so isolated, that sports events are one of the only ways they can effectively engage the outside world.
“That doesn’t mean the North Korean athletes are going to go for dinner with their American counterparts at the Olympic village, but it’s a way of showing that they’re a country, that their citizens are not robots and that they have some pretty good athletes.
“We don’t have to look far to see that athletes in any culture are a prized elite group.
“The state funds sport and so if you’re in that system, and you happen to succeed, then of course you’re going to be an honored person.
“You’re not necessarily going to be in decision-making, but you’re going to be pretty prominent in North Korean media and society.”
Soccer a precursor to Tuesday’s talks
Sporting failure can also reportedly have consequences.
They had lost all three of their group games, including a 7-0 defeat by Portugal, a match which is believed to be the country’s first live sports broadcast. FIFA, soccer’s governing body, even enquired about the whereabouts of the coach.
But soccer has given the North, one of the world’s last Communist dictatorships, one of its proudest sporting moments: the 2006 FIFA Under-20 World Championship title won by its women.
Both the North and the South have competed against each other frequently on the soccer pitch. They faced each other four times during qualification for the 2010 World Cup, though the North’s home matches were played in Shanghai as the regime had refused to allow the South Korean national anthem to be played or the South’s flag to be flown.