Can the Winter Olympics 2018 melt the icy relationship between South and North Korea?

As stated by Jung Woo Lee in his online article, ´A political history of the Winter Olympics´, “the Winter Olympic Games is a relatively humble sporting event in comparison with its summer counterpart”. Personally, I agree with Woo Lee´s introductory sentence, which maps the political history of previous winter Olympic Games, as indeed it is true that fewer sporting programmes take place and a smaller number of countries take part in this winter sporting occasion in comparison to the grand summer event. However, the modest nature of winter Olympics by no means suggests the event presents fewer episodes of a political drama. On the contrary, the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, dubbed the ´Peace Olympics´ by the media, seems to be one of the most political winter Olympics in the history of Olympic Games.


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This contradicts the belief of Stephen Moore a senior economic analyst for the Trump campaign, who maintains that sport should not mix with politics, and thus, sport should not be perceived as political. According to Moore´s conviction, left-leaning journalists are ruining sport and sports columns in newspapers by weighing in on political protests instead of sticking to the game. Accordingly, the sports pages hardly provide any sports news, such as box scores or game summaries, without editors giving room to the political left-wing social commentary. To elaborate Moore´s conclusion, two leading feature writers of sports columns in the USA Today, Nancy Armour and Christine Brennan, regularly demonstrate their opinions about “the sins of capitalism” and how capitalism is “intertwined with racism”. By using these newspaper writers as an example, Moore asks the question: What does any of this have to do with sports? To answer his own question, Moore offers his understanding of sport as pure entertainment. Following his own definition of sport, he perceives it as “an escape, a respite from the politics and the problems of the world”. For this reason, Moore opposes any stand that mixes sport and politics together, even when multiple academic articles, as well as world experiences, prove otherwise.


To demonstrate, in December 2017 the conference entitled ´Golden Games: Sport and Diplomacy in East Asia and Beyond´ took place. Hosted by the National University of Singapore, the conference presented the study, which looked at the connection between sport and politics, particularly diplomacy. Following the study and the subject of the conference, the conference emphasized the idea that international sporting events have been sites of diplomacy. As maintained by one of the conference´s guests, David Rowe, the sport is inherently political. To explain, the sport has potential to connect political actors, such as states, open dialogues between these actors as well as influence countries´ soft power to promote their political and economic interests. To exemplify, look at the political implications of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.


Personally, I disagree with Moore´s conclusion about the sport as entertainment only and consider the potential use of the current winter sporting competition as a cultural diplomacy tool for facilitating inter-Korean dialogues and exchanges. Without the doubt, over the last few years, the political and military tension surrounding this northeast Asian region has notably escalated. However, the newly elected president in South Korea, Moon Jae-in, manifests a strong desire to improve its relationship with its northern ‘sibling’. In this regard, the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in the South Korean town of Pyeong Chang offers a golden opportunity to transform the conflict-laden political climate. Given the peculiar political situation in the Korean peninsula wherein ideological conflict and the desire for the reunification co-exist, the two-track approach is crucial in order to host the Winter Olympics safely and successfully. Therefore, in the words of Jung Woo Lee, I argue that in the contemporary diplomatic scene, the role of soft power must not be overestimated and the utility value of hard power must not be undervalued.


South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s intention to use the Olympics as a form of diplomacy has produced a dramatic gesture – the two Koreas displayed unity at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Specifically, the South Korean president and the younger sister of the North Korean leader, Kim Yo-jong, celebrated together when the two Korean Olympic teams paraded as one during the ceremony. Moreover, they sat next to each other amicably and cheered jointly for the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team in the Olympic ice rink. Such display of unity may indicate defrosting of icy relationship between the two Koreas and open mutual discussions. Indeed, North and South Korea restored the diplomatic channel between the two sides, when North Korea made a further gesture and invited the South Korean president to hold talks between the two leaders in North Korea. In this sense, the sporting event offered a room for warm gestures, an opportunity to resolve the political and military tensions as well as building a stepping stone for future cooperation. Or did it?


Although there are many who hope the two Koreas will finally put their differences aside and find a common ground for reunification, others perceive North Korea’s friendly gesture as a propaganda effort to grab the spotlight and produce an appearance of peace-loving military power. Moreover, although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has asked countries to respect the historic tradition of the Olympic Truce during the competition, this tradition has had certain limitations. To elaborate on this point, it is true that the Olympics Games have been used in the past as a bridge leading to peace. The modern version of Olympics built on the grounds of Ancient Greek Games, where the truce was a crucial component of games. The IOC’s founder, Pierre de Coubertin, hoped the competition would promote world peace by bringing together young athletes of all countries of the world for amicable sports competitions. According to de Coubertin’s stance, the Olympic Games have provided several opportunities for international reconciliation. That has proved true particularly during the global upheaval of the 1990s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, athletes from 12 of the former Soviet republics competed as members of a unified team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The unified athletes took home more medals than any other team. Their victories were seen as a symbol of “hope, solidarity, and sportsmanship over totalitarianism”. On a similar note, during the Balkan wars, the IOC co-ordinated to allow athletes from the post-Yugoslavian states to compete.Hence, the Olympic Truce has continued to be a priority for sports administrators because they see sport as able to promote peace globally and in local communities. However, as previously suggested, the Olympics have also shown its limitations. Specifically, the Olympics did not end either of the two world wars. Furthermore, the Olympics also provoked international confrontations by being a site of international tensions, such as when the Nazi regime used the 1936 Berlin Olympics to promote their fascist and racist agenda. Contemporary historians understand these Games as a confrontation between democracy and totalitarianism. Thus, sport’s ability to overcome war remains limited and what may appear as a new wave of peace in the world cannot be completely taken at face value.


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As stated above, the South Korean president has been officially invited for talks with North Korea at the opening ceremony; however, as the Winter Olympics come to the end, president Moon Jae-in admitted he is not yet prepared to commit to meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in North Korea. Although Moon Jae-in was heard to praise North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang games and expressed hopes for future cooperation, it seems to me that the president remains skeptical. His skepticism is a result of unknown conditions that will serve as a building block for a summit between the two leaders in the North. Moreover, Yoon Young-Seok, an opposition party member of parliament and chairman of the foreign affairs and unification committee, expressed his doubts as well, based on the realization that North Korea´s invitation is not underlined by any specific plan toward getting North Korea to abandon its nuclear program. The lead figures of South Korea fear that if the official talks go through, there will be no achieved results. The fear is rooted in the past experience and previous attempts when the United States and its allies have provided financial incentives to North Korea or agreed to suspend military exercises with South Korea in order to find common ground. These previous talks fell through as North Korea refused to abandon its nuclear program. Simply said, in words of Balazs Szalontai, an associate professor at Korea University, “The North Korean leadership simply does not want to give up the nuclear capability it has managed to create and South Korea’s engagement policy can hardly persuade them to change their mind,”


Thus, although the United Winter Olympic Games can partially be considered a success, one needs to remain cautious in spite of all hopes. Only time will tell in what directions both Koreas will go and how they will decide to write history further.



Katarina Krajcirovicova

School of Gender Studies and Law

University of London


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