Talks between North and South Korea have led to the rogue North agreeing to send a delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Reuters
The small South Korean town of Pyeongchang, host of this year’s Winter Olympics, has suddenly become the epicentre of one of the most dangerous games in world politics.
Amid escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and just after the United Nations and United States stepped up their already extensive sanctions regime against North Korea, an Olympian-cultivated olive branch has been offered.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s New Year message suggested the country might after all participate in the Winter Olympics just over the border. High-level talks between the parties quickly ensued in the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).
Discussion, though, was not limited to the Opening Ceremony and figure skating. It extended to wider co-operation between the countries (including talks between their respective Red Cross organisations) and, crucially, to mitigating military tensions. A communication hiatus of more than two years between countries still formally at war has been ended by international sporting ties that bind.
Now, a substantial contingent of North Korean delegates – including athletes, coaches, senior officials, cheerleaders, artists, journalists, observers and a taekwondo display team – will enter South Korean territory for the Olympics. This will be a symbolic demonstration of reconciliation, and even of a mood for reunification projected to the world.
This is a classic instance of sport diplomacy – a concept popularised by the “ping pong diplomacy” between the US and China in the early 1970s.
Suggestions of sport’s special capacity to open doors have been around since the Olympic Truce offered safe passage for athletes and their entourages in the Ancient Games. It was also a key plank of the philosophy underlying the Modern Olympic revival.
Sport, though, has long been a manifestation of “soft power”.
The Australian Sports Diplomacy Strategy contains the benign-looking goals of “connecting people and institutions”, “enhancing sport for development”, and “supporting innovation and integrity”. But the other goal, “showcasing Australia”, principally concerns promoting the export of the country’s sporting and other goods and services.
Despite these doubts about the motivations behind sport diplomacy, in the immediate Korean context it is difficult to imagine many other overtures from outside the formal political apparatus avoiding immediate condemnation as sanction-busting treachery.
This is a significant diplomatic breakthrough considering the conflict-laden atmosphere. North Korea’s continual testing of its long-range missiles has destabilised diplomatic relations among countries in northeast Asia and beyond. The tit-for-tat war of bellicose rhetoric between Kim and US President Donald Trump has exacerbated this problem.