North-South Korean Equilibrium: Which Way Will It Swing?

The Winter Olympics are being held in the county of PyeongChang in South Korea this year. This is not the first time the South has hosted the Olympics; back in 1988, the city of Seoul was host to the Olympic games which ran from September until early October. What is a surprise this year, however, is the presence of North Korea. This represents a stark contrast to the 1988 Olympics, wherein North Korea chose to boycott the event rather than attend. Not only are they attending and competing in the games, but the event has also seen the debut of the United Korean Women’s Ice Hockey team. This team is composed of 12 North Korean players and 23 South Korean players, debuting in a match against Switzerland. The formation of this team represents a very distinct change from past behaviours of both nations, and while it may be a step forward this does not mean the possibility of hostility between them has vanished entirely.

The presence of a United Korean team at all is a positive step forward. Both Korean nations should be commended for making an attempt at co-operation, showing the possibility of an end to hostility. This team sends a message to both an older generation for whom hopes of such unity were unlikely, and a younger generation that knows their neighbours only as their potential calamity. The presence of North Korea at these games in any capacity is also a positive step given their turbulent history with their southern cousins. However, the real test for this newfound attempt at unity will happen after the conclusion of the Winter Olympics. If threats of attack continue from North Korea after the events end, it will not only ring hollow to the rest of the world, it will also have detrimental effects on the perception South Koreans will have of their northern cousins, who are already under scrutiny due to the decades of continued hostility.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has been vocal in the past about wanting to reunify and promote a peaceful relationship with the ‘hermit kingdom,’ claiming in an interview of September last year that he wanted to be remembered as someone “who built a peaceful relationship between the North and South.” However, the President is currently fighting an uphill battle. The presence of North Korea in the Winter Olympics has sparked tensions due to the last minute nature of the addition of the North Korean players in the United Korean team. However, it has also revealed that the scars of the continued animosity run deep within the Korean population due to their troubled history. Youngmi Kim, a Lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, remarked on the populations’ concerns by stating that “Moon has been very accommodating to North Korea’s desire to join the Olympics late, and that has been seen as deeply unfair.” Adding to this, Youngmi Kim claimed “Young people in South Korea have no memory of a united peninsula. They only know a North Korea that has attacked border islands and ships and threatens Seoul on a regular basis.”

While this joint venture does indeed represent a step forward in the troubled relationship between both Koreas, this does not mean that the hostility between both nations has now immediately ceased. The mere fact that these two nations are co-operating even in something such as a sporting event is to be commended, but it remains to be seen if anything will come of it once the Olympic ceremonies have concluded. Furthermore, the long history between both nations in conflict has revealed itself to be an issue. Despite the fact many are pleased to see both nations co-operating, even if only playing hockey, it is going to be difficult for many younger South Koreans to see their counterparts as possible friends or allies. And should hostilities resume in earnest after the closing ceremony, this venture of joint co-operation will ring hollow. Any possible reunion of the Korean Peninsula is still going to take time, and a concentrated effort for both nations.

Joshua Robinson