By Juni Kim
In a year marked by turbulent Korean relations, the Rio Games provided the backdrop for two modest moments of North-South reconciliation. South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-ju posed with her fellow North Korean competitor Hong Un-jong for a selfie, which quickly became viral. A few days later, Kim Song-guk, the North Korean bronze medalist in the men’s 50m pistol, took the medal stand with the South Korean gold medalist Jin Jong-oh. In a press conference following the event, Kim remarked that their accomplishment would mean more for Korea if the two nations were unified. As the Rio Games come to a close, the realities and politics between the two neighboring countries will unfortunately overshadow these encouraging moments. With the 2018 Winter Olympics to be held in the South Korean resort town of Pyeongchang, North Korea has demonstrated eagerness to attain a share of the South Korean limelight that comes with hosting the Olympic Games. However, North Korea’s diplomatic track record and recent provocations may jeopardize their participation in the 2018 Games.
When Seoul was selected to host the 1988 Summer Olympics, North Korea made a serious bid to co-host the Games despite never having officially submitted a hosting bid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC). In 1985, North Korea proposed hosting half of the Olympic events in its capital Pyeongyang under the new moniker “Korea Pyongyang Seoul Olympic Games.” The IOC ultimately rejected North Korea’s proposals, though the IOC did consider hosting several events in Pyeongyang including soccer, archery, table tennis, cycling, and women’s volleyball. The North Korean delegation’s insistence on hosting no less than half of the events led to the derailment of the negotiations. Despite a last minute appeal by South Korea to encourage the North to participate, North Korea boycotted the Games.
North Korea’s inflexible and botched attempt to co-host the 1988 Olympics did not dissuade them from more modest attempts to hold part of the Pyeongchang Games. During South Korea’s second bid to host the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, the North Korean national Olympic committee chair Chang Ung officially supported the bid only hours before the IOC selection committee’s decision. Chang also offered cooperation in fielding a united Korean team, similar to the unified Korean entrance in the opening ceremonies of the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.
After Pyeongchang finally succeeded in its third bid, North Korea began the development of a ski resort in Kangwon province, which borders South Korea. Chang Ung acknowledged that the resort’s purpose was partially meant to serve as a potentially Olympic site. North Korea attempted to showcase its newly built Masikryong ski resort this past January by inviting famed professional snowboarders to test the slopes. American snowboarders Dan “Danimals” Liedahl and Mike Ravelson were among the invited group, but North Korea’s fourth nuclear test just days before the trip prompted the organizers to scrap the plan.
Despite the construction of the resort, the organizing committee for the 2018 Winter Games rejected co-hosting possibilities repeatedly by citing the technical and logistical limitations in sharing the Games. In a news release in 2013, the committee asserted, “We should make sure technology and administrative works are in optimal condition in order to host an event- and athlete-oriented Olympic Games. Holding some of the events in the Masik resort, more than 300 kilometers away from Pyeongchang, cannot guarantee meeting this goal.” Choi Moon-soon, governor of Pyeongchang’s Gangwon province, is one notable exception to South Korean opposition for co-hosting the Games. He expressed support last year in possibly sharing snowboarding and slalom events with North Korea. Shortly after the governor made the comments, the organizing committee reemphasized their opposition to co-hosting possibilities. Kwak Young-jin, the committee’s vice president of planning and administration, firmly rebuked, “With the construction for all competition venues already under way, we have already made it crystal clear that there is no point of discussing co-hosting of the Olympics.”
With the door shut on co-hosting possibilities, North Korea’s participation in the 2018 Olympics remains unclear. In the week prior to the Rio Olympics, the North Korean Olympic committee stated its hope to participate in the Pyeongchang Games, though the South Korean Unification Ministry indicated that North Korea’s participation depends on the IOC. Inter-Korean relations suffered major setbacks this year including North Korea’s January nuclear test, multiple missile launches, and South Korea’s closing of the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex, one of the few remaining avenues of North-South cooperation. North Korean participation in the Games may be put in further jeopardy if the regime continues to carry out provocations.
Even with IOC approval, it is possible that North Korea may choose to boycott the Games for political reasons. Much like the 1988 Olympics, North Korea may feel slighted by not being able to host any events and withdraw participation in protest. Such a withdrawal would only further isolate the regime, which has drawn heavy international condemnation including the recent round of UN sanctions.
Both North and South Korea should not underestimate the importance of the 2018 Games for inter-Korean relations. In his book Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia, Victor Cha wrote, “Sport matters in world politics because it can create diplomatic breakthroughs (or breakdowns) in ways unanticipated by regular diplomacy. Just as a small white ping-pong ball promoted a thaw in relations between the United States and China, sport helped to end the Cold War in Asia and remains a unique instrument of diplomacy, building goodwill in a region of the world that lacks this commodity.” Athletes like Lee Eun-ju and Kim Song-guk reflect this goodwill, and North Korea’s potential absence from the Pyeongchang Games would be a significant missed chance to improve North-South relations.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.
 Cha, Victor D. Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia. Columbia University Press, 2009.