Olympics’ Korea moment: chance of detente or lost cause?

January 18, 2018 9:42 am
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Seoul and Pyongyang have agreed to march together at the Olympic opening ceremony under one flag, seen here during the women’s world ice hockey championships in April © AFP/File / JUNG Yeon-Je

, SEOUL, Korea, Republic of, Jan 18 – Officials from North and South Korea meet with the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne on Saturday to set the seal on Pyongyang’s participation in its neighbour’s Winter Games.

It is a rare moment of positive diplomatic publicity for the Olympics and founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s notion of forging peace through sports.

But analysts question whether detente with the isolated, nuclear-armed North will be sustainable once the show in Pyeongchang is over.

The two Koreas last week agreed the North would send its athletes to the Games, just 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of the Demilitarized Zone that has divided the peninsula since the end of the Korean War.

And on Wednesday, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to march together under one flag at the opening ceremony. They will also field a united team in the women’s ice hockey tournament.

The IOC must approve extra Olympic slots for the North’s athletes after they failed to qualify or missed deadlines to register, but its chief Thomas Bach has hailed Pyongyang’s participation as a “great step forward in the Olympic spirit”.

North Korea is subject to multiple sets of UN Security Council sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. It carried out multiple launches last year, and detonated what it said was a hydrogen bomb.

Leader Kim Jong-Un and US President Donald Trump traded personal insults and threats of war even as Seoul called for a “Peace Olympics”.

The North’s participation in the Games has been central in the campaign by organisers and Seoul to ensure the Pyeongchang Games merit that tag.

Now Kim has seized the opportunity presented by the Olympics to dial down tensions, at the same time securing a delay to joint US-South Korean military exercises that always infuriate Pyongyang.

“The Olympics serve as a diplomatic catalyst because they have a huge media audience,” said Jean-Loup Chappelet, an Olympics expert and professor at Lausanne University in Switzerland.

But his colleague Patrick Clastres says they are a tool of governments.

“There are no examples of sport creating peace,” he told AFP.

“It is nation states that have used sporting arenas to send diplomatic signals.”

– Re-gild the lily –

The Olympics have more often been associated with diplomatic disputes than successes.

Aside from perennial scandals over costs, corruption and doping, they have repeatedly been hit by political boycotts.

The US and several of its allies, along with China, stayed away from Moscow in 1980, and the Soviet Union and most of the Warsaw Pact countries reciprocated for Los Angeles in 1984.

Both East and West went to Seoul in 1988 but Pyongyang and a handful of others did not.

“Realpolitik is more powerful than the Olympic narrative,” says Clastres.

At the same time, he added, the IOC needs “a narrative that presents it as more than an organiser of sporting events” to justify its claims to a special place transcending sports, society and politics.

“The Olympic institutions need to re-gild their lily” and Saturday’s summit was being staged to “replicate international diplomacy”, he said.

“Thomas Bach is to a certain extent the master of ceremonies and has seized the opportunity to create some pomp.”

– Buying time –

There have been occasional moments of Olympic-driven unity.

East and West Germany competed together from 1956 to 1964, until Berlin secured the right to participate separately.

And in the 2000s, when relations between North and South Korea were better, they marched together under a neutral flag at the opening and closing ceremonies of several Olympics.

They formed unified teams for the world table tennis championships and a youth football tournament in 1991, but the strategic landscape has changed radically since then.

South Korean President Moon Jae-In is hoping to use the momentum generated by the Olympics to encourage the North to come forward for talks on nuclear disarmament and peace.

But Pyongyang says its weapons are not up for negotiation, and Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono said this week such plans may be “naive”.

“I believe that North Korea wants to buy some time to continue their nuclear missile programmes,” Kono said.

And the Olympic glow will dissipate rapidly once the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve military exercises start after the Paralympics end in March, warned Yang Moo-Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

The Games, the Kookmin Ilbo daily said in an editorial, were “just a temporary sports event”.

“Those days when everyone shed tears of joy over the fact that we meet together and form a joint sports team are over.”

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