How the long road to a unified Korean Olympic team began in Hong Kong

Brian Bridges says the first attempt to field a joint team led to bilateral talks in Hong Kong in 1963, the first such talks since the Korean war. This and other failed attempts over the years show that politics and sport are inextricably linked

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 February, 2018, 5:42pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 February, 2018, 7:52pm

The opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will include an emotional and symbolic moment as the athletes of North Korea and South Korea march in together in a unified group. One day later, the women’s ice hockey team of “Korea” will become the first-ever Korean unified sports team in an Olympic sports event. It has been a long and winding road to the creation of a unified team, albeit now only in one Olympic discipline.

Tortuous and previously unsuccessful negotiations date back nearly six decades to the late 1950s, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) first tried to bring the two Koreas together. And it was Hong Kong that was to provide the venue for the first-ever direct talks between the North and South over such unified Olympic participation.

For both Koreas, sport represented a tangible means to showcase the proclaimed superiority of each political system in this intense rivalry for prestige and international legitimacy. By the late 1950s, the IOC was hoping that the two Koreas could copy east and west Germany, which created an all-German Olympic team for the first time for the 1956 Olympics, but the German formula proved unachievable in the tense inter-Korean atmosphere so soon after the bitter Korean war.

North Korean delegation arrives in the South ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games

In the run-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the IOC tried to force the creation of a unified team, this time by effectively threatening the South that if no efforts were made to organise a joint team, then the North would be allowed to compete as an independent team. This led the South to suggest a Korean-only meeting, without IOC involvement, in Hong Kong.

The South criticised the North’s delegation for making political propaganda, while the North accused the South of insincerity

Consequently, the first meeting between North and South Korean representatives after the Korean war was held in Hong Kong from May 17, 1963. Although Hong Kong government officials preferred not to have the North Koreans coming, the Foreign Office in London made it clear that the demands of the Olympic movement must be met. Visas were duly issued and the North Koreans arrived by train across the border from China on May 15. They stayed at the Miramar Hotel, although the meetings were held at the Peninsula hotel.

Given the distance from the IOC’s headquarters in Switzerland, the then president of the Amateur Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, Arnaldo de Oliveira Sales, was asked to help out on logistical support issues, but neither he nor his staff were allowed to attend the actual talks.

The talks continued for nearly two weeks and covered the flag, the uniforms, mission memberships and the elimination contests for choosing the best athletes for the combined teams. Other details were to be settled at a follow-up meeting, which the IOC insisted should again be held in Hong Kong, because it was “a good neutral site” and “the two sides agreed on it before and had a successful meeting there”.

The bilateral talks resumed on July 26, but broke up after only one day. Sales called the meeting a “debacle”, while the IOC itself noted that the talks had hardly begun before they “degenerated into ideological and political squabbles”. The South criticised the North’s delegation for making political propaganda, while the North accused the South of insincerity. Reporters outside the meeting heard shouting and fists being pounded.

Then the South delegation walked out, telling waiting reporters that “it’s all over now”. Both sides sent lengthy reports back to the IOC, each accusing the other of bad faith.

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Hong Kong officials felt that the breakdown was due mainly to the South Koreans hardening their position against a joint team. The IOC, moreover, was losing patience and, to the surprise of the South, announced that, since a “united team would encounter too many difficulties”, in future there would be two separate Korean teams, one called Korea and the other North Korea.

Until this year, the more prestigious Olympics have remained beyond the pale

So, in October 1964, for the first time both the South and the North sent athletes to the summer Olympics. But there was one final twist. Even after its athletes arrived in Tokyo, before the opening ceremony could take place, the North actually withdrew completely when some of its athletes were deemed ineligible by the IOC through having participated in the “anti-imperialist” Games of the Newly Emerging Forces held in Indonesia the previous year.

Not only did no joint team emerge for the Tokyo Olympics, but also, despite intermittent discussions over the following decades, the two Koreas have never agreed to field a joint team at any Olympics until this year.

Watch: North and South Korea marching as one at the 2000 Sydney Games

Although the joint entry of the two teams into Olympic opening ceremonies began in 2000 and lasted until 2006, the athletes competed separately for their respective national teams once the ceremonies were over. In fact, only twice in the same year, 1991, at non-Olympic championships, have joint Korean teams been fielded in any international sporting event. Until this year, the more prestigious Olympics have remained beyond the pale.

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Despite the Hong Kong authorities’ reticence about allowing in North Koreans, Sales, who maintained a strong belief in the Olympic spirit, tried to do what he could to facilitate talks. But his federation’s aspiration to be an “honest broker” fell foul of intractable inter-Korean political tensions. As the recent manoeuvring surrounding the North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Games suggest, today, more than 50 years later, sport in the Korean context still cannot be separated from politics.

Brian Bridges is an adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science at Lingnan University and the author of The Two Koreas and the Politics of Global Sport