Why North Korea’s Olympic ‘olive branch’ will only end in South Korean disappointment
John Power says Seoul should know from bitter experience that sports diplomacy of this kind may make for a great photo op but will not lead to real cooperation or peace. Nuclear disarmament will never be on the agenda
They say that managing expectations is the key to avoiding disappointment. In that spirit, please indulge me in some expectations management on the subject of North Korea’s possible participation in next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea: figure skating, although charming, isn’t going to usher in a new era of peace and reconciliation on the Korean peninsula.
Listening to the South Korean leadership in recent days, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
Since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un used his New Year address to signal his willingness to take part in the Games, Seoul has made one breathless claim after another about the potential for a thaw in relations.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who began his political life in the pro-rapprochement Roh Moo-hyun administration, this week outlined his view of the Games as potentially nothing less than “an epoch-making opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations and establish peace”.
Going further still, presidential spokesman Park Soo-hyun said the successful hosting of a “peace Olympics” would “make contributions to the peace and harmony of the Korean peninsula and northeast Asia, as well as to the world”.
With Pyongyang on Wednesday reopening a long-neglected cross-border hotline to discuss its participation, Seoul may well see its hopes realised for a Games that highlights inter-Korean cooperation. But that’s about all it or anyone else will see. A quadrennial showcase of largely obscure winter sports isn’t going to convince Kim to relinquish his nuclear arsenal or institute a parliamentary democracy north of the 38th parallel. Not unless he dons skates himself and, in the process, suffers a personality-altering blow to the head.
Despite the current hype, we’ve been at this juncture many times over. In the run-up to the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, a coastal city about 30km from Seoul, there were similarly lofty claims about the transformative power of sports diplomacy. After much back and forth, North Korea took part – albeit at a cost to the South Korean taxpayer, who footed much of the bill for the delegation’s stay. At the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics and 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, when the “sunshine” policy of inter-Korean cooperation was at its height, athletes from the two Koreas even marched together under a flag depicting an undivided Korean peninsula.
Watch: The two Koreas at the opening ceremony of Sydney 2000
The result of all this sports diplomacy?
By 2006, North Korea had completed its first successful nuclear test. Last September, it carried out its sixth nuclear detonation, its most powerful yet. Two months later, it tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the entire territory of the United States.
South Korea’s latest Olympic outreach is doomed to failure because it is based on a dubious premise: that, after seven decades of separation, the Koreas are divided as much by ignorance and misconceptions as the heavily fortified border. This suggests that North and South could overcome their differences if they only took the time to talk things through.
Unfortunately for the South, the tensions on the Korean peninsula aren’t the result of any misunderstanding. North Korea’s nuclear programme and periodic attacks on South Koreans aren’t rooted in ignorance, misunderstandings or miscommunication. They’re perfectly deliberate and calculated, part of a strategy to ensure regime survival and extract whatever concessions it can from its persistently earnest neighbour.
Pyongyang will entertain rhetoric about inter-Korean reconciliation and photo ops with its athletes on South Korean soil to the extent that it serves its purposes. Regrettably for South Korea, those don’t include nuclear disarmament or the kind of loosening of internal control required to truly bring the divided nations together.
By itself, there’s nothing particularly objectionable about North Korea taking part in next month’s Games. By all means, Moon should welcome its delegation, if Pyongyang ultimately does send its athletes across the border. Just don’t expect it to change much. You’ll only be disappointed.
John Power is an Australia-based journalist who reported from South Korea between 2010 and 2016