Korean sports diplomacy

If the older generation has failed to mend fences, then the uphill task of normalisation and unification now rests with the new generations

On February 9, winter Olympics began in the South Korean county of PyeongChang, located in Ghangwon province. The source of attraction and fascination in South Korean Olympics is the participation of a 22 member team of Olympians from North Korea. In the opening ceremony, North and South Korean team entered under a unified flag. History was made in PyeongChang between the two antagonistic and divided countries that since 1945 are living in a state of hostility.

Will the participation of North Korea in South Korean winter Olympics cause a breakthrough in their hostile and belligerent ties? How the United States, a major allay of South Korea, views ‘sports diplomacy’ impacting on its nuclear tension with Pyongyang? Will the partition of Korea, which is the only legacy of the Second World War, be undone leading to the unification of the Korean peninsula?

It was the collective wisdom of the South Korean President Moon Jae-un and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jae-in, which paved the way for the participation of North Korean Olympic team in XXIII winter Olympic Games. North Korea used winter Olympics as an opportunity to reduce its isolation caused as a result of sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council. It will be too early to expect a breakthrough because of inter-Korean sports diplomacy yet four major realities should be taken into account while examining that how sports can bring together hostile and warring nations. First, in late 1960s and early 1970s, the launching of ‘ping pong’ diplomacy consisting of the table tennis teams of United States and the People’s Republic of China helped the melting of ice between the two adversaries. ‘Ping Pong’ diplomacy took place when the United States and the People’s Republic of China had no diplomatic relations and American policy of containing Communist China by erecting the alliance of South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) was termed as a major impediment in mending fences between the two countries.

When the then U.S National Security Adviser Dr Henry Kissinger visited Peking (now Beijing) on a secret visit in July 1971 via Pakistan, the ‘Ping Pong’ diplomacy had started yielding positive results leading to the thaw in Sino-US relations. Furthermore, the US President Richard Nixon’s visit to Peking in 1972 led to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two former adversaries.

The road to Korean unification passes through the youths of the two countries who demonstrated a great deal of warmth and enthusiasm for each other during the winter Olympics

Second, ‘cricket diplomacy’ between India and Pakistan is perceived as an initiative to ameliorate their tense and hostile relations. In the winter of 1986-87 when Indo-Pak relations were at their lowest ebb and India had deployed its forces on the borders of Pakistan under the pretext of ‘Operation Brass-tacks’, the threat of war loomed large. In February 1987 when tension along the Indo-Pak border reached its peak, cricket match between the team of the two countries was scheduled in Jaipur, India.

The then President of Pakistan General Ziaul Haq utilised the opportunity of the cricket match between India and Pakistan and announced to watch the match without an invitation from the Indian side. Taken aback from Zia’s sudden decision to visit Jaipur, the then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi decided to welcome and receive him. Shrewdly crafted and well-designed decision of President Zia was dubbed as ‘cricket diplomacy’ which is still quoted as the wisest policy of Pakistan to diffuse border tension with India.

The impact of President Zia’s visit to Jaipur to visit the cricket match of India and Pakistan was enormous because Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi during his conversation in the sidelines of the cricket match agreed to diffuse tension and withdraw Indian forces from the borders of Pakistan. As a result, the looming threat of the outbreak of hostilities between the two countries was managed and the two sides agreed to reach a number of military confidence-building measures like advance notice of military exercises and the establishment of hotline between the Director General, Military Operations of India and Pakistan. Third, playing politics with sports can further vitiate relations between the two countries. For instance, following the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan, the US and its allies decided to boycott Moscow Olympics scheduled to be held in the summer of 1980. Although, Moscow Olympics were held without the participation of America and its allies, such a step created a bad precedent. And when world Olympics were due in Los Angeles in the summer of 1984, history repeated itself because the Soviet Union and its allies decided to boycott Olympics to be held in the United States.

State interests are such that equating sports and politics is not prevented resulting into further polarisation between and among warring states. As far as winter Olympics in South Korea are concerned, it seems, North Korean participation in such games will help build bridges between the two Koreas. But, one cannot expect any thaw in US-North Korean tension on the nuclear issue.

Disregarding Washington’s warning given to Seoul not to deepen its ties with Pyongyang, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in met Ms Kim Yo-jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the presidential palace and received the invitation letter from the North Korean leader to visit Pyongyang. The South Korean President on that occasion said that the “Koreas should make it happen” and that the right kind of environment needs to be created for breakthrough in North-South Korea ties. It is for the first time since 2007 that high level contacts between North and South Korea have taken place. This time, both divided neighbors took full advantage of winter Olympics to unleash the process of normalisation and reconciliation.

If winter Olympics in South Korea can be called as ‘ripe moment’ for mending fences between the only divided nation on ideological grounds since the end of the second world war, there are major impediments in a way for peace in the Korean peninsula. For instance, the two Koreas are politically, economically and ideologically divergent and any effort for the unification of Korea will face the challenge of North Korea’s impoverished economy and the severe authoritarian culture. The North Korean regime understands the fact that more and more interaction of its citizens with their counterparts in the South will test their own monopoly over power as South Korea is democratic, developed and economically prosperous. More than seventy years of separation has also caused variation in their culture and language as people belonging to the same ethnic stock now feel it difficult to communicate in their own language because of the change in the dialect and vocabulary. Furthermore, the nuclear card of North Koreas and its conflict with the United States over its nuclear ambitions is another Achilles heel in North-South normalisation process. The road to Korean unification passes through the youths of the two countries who demonstrated a great deal of warmth and enthusiasm for each other during the winter Olympics. If the older generation failed to mend fences, the uphill task of normalisation and unification now rests with the new generations. They are the ones whose future is at stake because of endless tension and confrontation between the two Koreas.

The writer is Meritorious Professor of International Relations at the University of Karachi and can be reached at amoonis@hotmail.com

Published in Daily Times, February 17th 2018.