Analysis: Cautious optimism sparked by Korean Olympics news
Amid suspicions of propaganda by North Korea, many welcome rivals’ interaction
Gangneung Ice Arena, where the Winter Olympics will be held: North Korea will send 230 cheerleaders and a 30-member taekwondo team – as well as an orchestra and half a hockey team. Photograph: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
Tension-weary Koreans are already calling next month’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang the “Peace Olympics” after it emerged that both Koreas will march together under one flag at the opening ceremony.
However, most countries, especially North Korea’s nervous neighbours and the US, are adopting a “wait and see” approach, and no change is anticipated on the sanctions imposed for the North’s nuclear programme.
The news is certainly a welcome sign of warmer ties between the two countries, bitter rivals divided by the heavily fortified demilitarised zone (DMZ) imposed after the Korean War ended in 1953 without a peace treaty.
Ties had worsened over the North’s nuclear weapons programme. The prospect of North Korea sending athletes, with the two Koreas fielding a joint women’s ice hockey team, has engendered considerable relief.
Mindful of the propaganda platform the Olympics offers, the North will also send a 230-member squad of cheerleaders and a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team – as well as an orchestra.
In South Korea, suspicion and resentment of North Korea is tempered by powerful ethnic nationalist sentiment, but leading papers have warned against irrational exuberance over the North’s motives.
The US, caught somewhat off-guard by the inter-Korean dialogue, has been sceptical, watching to see if North Korea is trying to drive a wedge between it and its ally.
Japan’s foreign minister Taro Kono called on the international community to be “clear-eyed” about the North’s motivations and not be gulled by a “charm offensive”.
Patricia Goedde, associate professor at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, does not believe Olympic participation is some kind of “cunning ruse” by the North to distract from its nuclear programme, as some suggest.
The move is a positive development as it reopens channels of communication, she says, although the usual impasses can be expected to surface, as they already have with the proposal for family reunions, which were made contingent on the return of 12 North Korean restaurant workers who escaped in Beijing.
“It may continue to be more of a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ scenario, especially whenever [South] Korea gives any assurance of its alliance with the US,” Goedde told The Irish Times.
It is early days, and everyone is aware that things have gone wrong before. The symbolic value of the Olympics and the attention they garner are keenly felt.
The two countries marched under a joint flag for the first time at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000, again in Athens four years later, at the Turin Winter Games in 2006 and at the Asian Games in 2007.
In 1991, a joint Korean team attended the World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan, and the women’s team took gold.
In 1987, there were negotiations between the two Koreas to co-host some events at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, but the talks collapsed, and an outraged Pyongyang bombed a Korean Air passenger jet, killing 115 people.
In 2002, when South Korea was co-hosting the football World Cup with Japan, there was a confrontation at sea between North Korean and South Korean patrol boats along a disputed maritime boundary – 13 North Koreans and six South Koreans were killed.
When the North Korean men’s team was beaten by the South at the Asian football championships in 2014, the result was never announced in North Korea.
South Korean foreign minister Kang Kyung-wha has sought to reassure allies that Seoul is not going blindly into the talks.
“We understand North Korea better than anybody, having dealt with North Korea for decades, having had series of discussions off and on . . . this is an opportunity,” she said in a BBC interview. “In the end we have to make the most of it.”