The Dark Side To South Korea’s Olympic Diplomacy With North Korea


One of the main highlights of the 2018 Pyeong Chang Winter Olympics that caught the world’s attention was the joint entry of both South and North Korean athletes during the opening ceremony. They all wore uniforms with simply “Korea” written on them and marched under a single flag depicting a unified Korean peninsula. This sight was definitely a strong visual and emotional reminder to all Koreans of the hopes and desires of reunifying the two states, which share a common ethnicity, history, and culture. This joint march will definitely remain as a symbolic gesture, a unique historical event that South Korea aims to use to set the tone for future diplomacy with the North. Although international media has largely applauded this gesture of peace, it is crucial to note the sacrifices of individual freedoms, democratic values, and professionalism made to achieve that reality.

Since the temporary halt on the Korean War in 1953 with the signing of an armistice, the two Koreas have experienced differing economic, political, and social developments over the past six decades. North Korea, labeled as a rogue state, has been ousted by the international community for the Kim regime’s authoritarian and violent means of oppressing political freedom, its astounding human rights abuses, and more recently, its pursuit of a nuclear missiles program. South Korea, on the other hand, has experienced exponential economic growth and has gained prominent international standing under a stable and functioning democracy. Since the North’s first nuclear test in 2006, there has been a cut in diplomatic engagement between the two Koreas leading to a stalemate in easing tensions.

President Moon Jae in hopes to use the Olympics as a means of engaging and encouraging dialogue with the North. Moon noted in his address to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that this was an “impossible dream to have an Olympics of peace, in which North Korea would participate and the two Koreas would form a joint team.” This is where the dark side of the politicization of the Olympics lies: the ends of achieving this ‘impossible dream’ were done by undemocratic and unprofessional means. The burden of presenting this symbol of peace was enforced upon South Korea’s women’s ice hockey team. In the grand gesture of sports diplomacy between the North and South, essentially the hockey team was used as a pawn to represent this superficial ‘unity’ between the two states.

Although the creation of a joint team was in efforts of pursuing further talks with the North regarding their nuclear weapons program, the athletes and much of the public was disappointed with the top-down last-minute decision that was enforced upon them. Gallup Poll results on public opinion regarding the addition of North Koreans to the roster showed a majority disagreement with the government’s decision. One petition managed to collect over 50,000 signatures in opposition to the sacrifice of the South Korean hockey team for political means. There was strong public criticism towards the undemocratic nature of the government’s decision to create a joint team despite the disapproval of the public majority, and the strong opposition from the female athletes. It could be argued that the individual freedoms of the hockey players were oppressed, and to some degree, democratic values overrun for this political strategic show.

Another important question to ask is why the men’s hockey team was never considered for integration. South Korea’s prime minister responded by stating that the women’s team was chosen because it “was not a medal contender anyway,” claiming that “athletic unity could be sacrificed for political unity.” However, many do claim that there was an element of sexism to the decision-making process, reinforcing the notion of not only how female sports are regarded as less important, but also how the gender factor suggests an easier enforcing of the decision on women.

But drifting away from the means, the ends are just as problematic. North Korea’s diplomatic front has put its southern counterpart in a very complicated situation. North Korea’s “charm offensive” has won it soft power at the Olympics: Kim Jong Un’s sister’s elegant smiles, the regime’s “army of beauties” (cheerleading squad), and the delegation and athletes’ participation in the games, displayed a positive image of North Korea for the international audience, detracting away from the hostility and threat of their nuclear missiles program. Also coined the “wedge effect,” political experts claim that North Korea has used the Olympics as a tool to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea in hopes of weakening their alliance.

Some suggest that North Korea is resorting to Olympic diplomacy in hopes of lifting some sanctions. South Korea had delayed its annual joint military drills with the US, in fear of creating a hostile environment for inter-Korean talks. This has created slight fractures in the trilateral alliance between the US, South Korea, and Japan. Japan “warned against being blinded by North Korea’s diplomatic charm offensive” at the Olympics, and stated that everyone should remain focused on eliminating the North’s nuclear program.

President Moon has taken a huge gamble in taking on a warm diplomatic approach with the North. Many Koreans, tired of sitting in the passenger seat of United States’ dominant foreign policy, have applauded Moon taking the driver’s seat in dealing with North Korea. Perhaps this is a more comprehensive approach to solving the Korean conflict; the US simply has an interest in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons, while South Korea has an array of interests at stake, including but not limited to, economic, social, cultural, and political integration.

One major deliverable of Moon’s approach was a personal invitation from Kim Jong Un inviting the president to Pyeongyang for an inter-Korean summit. But what is more important as of now is how Pyeongyang will behave post-Olympics regarding its nuclear and missile weapons testing. During negotiations leading up to the winter games, the North Korean delegation has been unwilling to negotiate their nuclear program. The risk of the gamble is that if North Korea reverts back to its hostile state after the games, South Korea’s diplomacy with the North will have failed and would inevitably not only hurt South Korea-US relations, but also Moon would lose the driver’s seat in pushing for inter-Korean reconciliation.

In Hee Kang