By Robert R. King
Last week delegations from South and North Korea met jointly with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, to discuss the two Koreas’ proposal for joint North-South participant in some sports at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. They also raised their proposal to present a joint bid to host the 2032 Olympics in Seoul and Pyongyang. The South Korean delegation was led by Minister of Culture, Sport and Tourism Do Jong-hwan and the President of the South Korean National Olympic Committee Lee Kee-heung. The North Korean delegation was led by DPRK Olympic Committee President and Minister of Physical Culture and Sports Kim Il Guk.
The two Koreas proposed to field joint North-South teams in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for women’s basketball, women’s field hockey, rowing, and judo. In addition, the two Koreas want their two Olympic teams to march together in the opening ceremony in Tokyo. While leaving open the possibility of adding more joint teams later, the IOC ruled that the joint teams were acceptable as long as they met Olympic qualifying criteria (Reuters, Yonhap, IOC).
Final selection of the venue for the 2032 Games will be not be made until 2025. Detailed proposals and preliminary site visits by the IOC will have to be made in advance of the final decision, so discussing plans at this stage is not that much premature. The two Koreas agreed five months ago to present a joint Olympic bid for the 2032 Games.
IOC President Bach welcomed the proposal for joint teams at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and also made positive comments about a joint hosting proposal. He said the two delegations made an “impressive presentation,” and he praised the idea of the joint hosting proposal:
The IOC has very warmly welcomed this initiative because it reflects the mission of the Olympic Games and demonstrates the unifying power of the sport. The mission of the IOC is to build bridges. Therefore we appreciate this initiative very much. Even though the candidature procedure has not opened yet, we have offered our advice for the two Koreas in order to make all the necessary steps to finally have a technically sound candidature.
Thomas Bach has served as President of the IOC since 2013. He is an Olympic fencer and previously was President of the German Olympic Committee. In February 2018 on the eve of the opening of PyeongChang Olympics in South Korea, President Moon Jae-in awarded Bach the Cheongryong Medal, the highest decoration of the Republic of Korea’s Order of Sports Merit.
Although the IOC President was positive about South and North fielding joint teams for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the joint bid to host the 2032 games, he raised a note of caution regarding the DPRK’s compliance with international anti-doping standards.
The day before the tripartite meeting in Lausanne, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in Montreal declared that the DPRK was “non-compliant” with international anti-doping standards. WADA said that North Korea did not dispute the finding of non-compliance, after failing to meet a four-month deadline to make improvements in its anti-doping procedures. The North has arranged for its doping control testing to be supervised by China’s sports anti-doping agency at North Korea’s expense.
The IOC voiced a note of caution about anti-doping compliance in the press release issued after the tripartite meeting. “The IOC insisted that the athletes in the united Korean teams will be subject to the same anti-doping testing programme as all other athletes in advance of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. . . In the interest of the continuous fight against doping, the IOC will explore the possibility with WADA and other parties of providing additional support” for North Korea to assure anti-doping compliance.
The participation of joint all-Korean teams in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is significant. North and South have previously fielded joint teams in the Olympics and in other international sports venues, so the proposed joint teams continue a periodic practice that has occurred in the past. Such joint teams have depended on the state of political relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. Most recently, during the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea, North and South fielded a joint women’s hockey team, and ten North Korean athletes competed in individual sports at PyeongChang. During the opening ceremony, athletes from North and South entered the stadium together under the Korean unification flag. (The Korean unification flag is white and in the center is a blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula. It has been used for other sporting events when North and South participate together.)
Competitors from North and South first participated jointly in international sports competitions in 1991, when an all-Korean team took part in the World Table Tennis Championship. Later that same year a joint team participated in the FIFA World Youth Championship (soccer). The North-South women’s table tennis team gave a particularly dramatic performance, winning the gold and defeating the Chinese women’s team, which had won the previous nine world championships.
The ups and downs of North-South politics have always taken precedence over the expressions of unity from joint participation in sports events. After the two initial joint-team successes in 1991, the next occasion for a joint team was nine years later when the two Korean Olympic teams marched together under the unification flag at opening ceremonies for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Athletes of South and North marched together for the 2002 Busan Asian Games, the 2003 Aoimori (Japan) Asian Games, the 2004 Athens Olympics, and the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. There were no efforts, however, to mount a joint North-South team for any sports events from 1991 until the joint women’s hockey team participated in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
The revival of joint North-South Korean teams for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is significant, but the two Koreas are not the only case of joint Olympic teams from other nations. The most prominent example is the divided Germany. An All-German Olympic Team participated in the 1956, 1960, and 1964 Summer and Winter Olympic Games – although the teams from the West (Federal Republic of Germany) and East (German Democratic Republic) participated separately in all of the Olympic Games between 1968 and 1988.
The proposal for joint Seoul-Pyongyang hosting of the 2032 Olympics is unique. There has never been a joint bid from two states to host the Olympics. This makes the positive support from IOC President Thomas Bach for the joint North-South bid all the more noteworthy.
Organizing and financing the infrastructure for a massive multi-venue, multi-sport event is significant. North Korea by itself would never win an Olympic bid. There would be considerable doubt about its ability to finance infrastructure and manage such an undertaking. Linked with the South, however, a joint bid involving Pyongyang does have credibility. The Republic of Korea’s Olympic organizing capability is clear from its organization of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics and the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. The involvement of Pyongyang gives the joint bid a unique twist that probably improves the chances for a winning proposal.
A joint venture with the North, however, poses significant risks for the South. The biggest difficulty will not be organizing or financing the venture. The South will be the ultimate guarantor that the money and organization will be in place, and Seoul will no doubt end up shouldering a disproportionate share of the costs. But the politics of keeping this joint effort on track will be demanding. Kim Jong-un has been quite willing to make very risky political moves. Nonetheless, Kim is difficult to work with even at his best and most cooperative. The prestige, status, and legitimacy of hosting the Olympics would be important for the North, but nothing is more important to Kim than maintaining his family’s monopoly of power in the North. Any number of issues could cause the North unexpectedly to make unreasonable demands, create difficulties, or withdraw from co-sponsorship for some totally unrelated political reason.
For South Korean President Moon Jae-in, strengthening links with the North is a priority. Currently reviving joint economic ventures such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang tourist resort are problematic because of UN Security Council sanctions imposed to limit the North’s nuclear and missile programs. The high-profile joint Olympic bid provides an important opportunity for strengthening ties between North and South when other options are more difficult.
The 2032 Olympic Games are 13 years away. The IOC vote to select the venue for 2032 will take place in about 6 years. Moon Jae-in’s term as South Korea’s president will end before that IOC vote. Nevertheless, a joint Olympic bid is a highly visible and dramatic gesture of the effort to break down barriers between North and South that has immediate political benefit. Whether or not it ultimately succeeds, it contributes to the political aims of both President Moon and Supreme Leader Kim.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Picture via James Hill published in The New York Times