Winter Olympics: Bridging the North and South

The 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics Games in South Korea is more than just another major sporting event for the host country. This February, South Korea marches into the Winter Olympics hand in hand with the North, after more than 20 years since the two countries last competed together as a united team in a major sporting event [1].

Korea was first divided in 1945 after the United States and Soviet Union took control of the peninsula from Japan at the end of the Second World War. The North became The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, while the South became The Republic of Korea. Five years later however, North Korea declared war on the South with the help of China and Russia and attempted to invade [2]. After three years of war and stalemate, the two sides reached an armistice and set up a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) which is still heavily guarded and fortified to this day [3].

It is exactly due to this prolonged tension between the two Koreas that competing under the same unified flag seems to be such a huge step forward for the two countries. Not only will they be marching under the same flag, but it will also be the first time they have ever had a team comprised of members from both countries in the form of a joint women’s hockey team. In light of this event, North Korea has sent a delegation to the South in support, which was accompanied by Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, and Kim Yong-nam, the nominal head of state, as well as other influential North Korean figures. While it is the first time such high-ranking officials have crossed the DMZ border, it seems to have done little to ease the tension despite the appearance of finally establishing a consistent dialogue between the two sides.

Particularly in light of the backlash against North Korea’s nuclear missile testing, South Korean  president Moon Jae-in seems to hope that the Olympics will serve as a wedge between the rising tensions between Pyongyang and Washington. However, it is difficult to say whether such a move is a step forward, or a step back for the two Koreas [4]. In South Korea, there has been an uproar among the citizens, including protests against the alleged unfairness of the South Korean government for allowing North Korean athletes to compete so last minute. Although protests are not the largest problem, they very much hold the possibility of escalating into a major political incident – the opposite of what South Korean officials appear to be hoping for.

Additionally, there are concerns that the attempt at dialogue is nothing more than a cover for North Korea’s true intentions – to utilise the Olympic games as a tool for propaganda – especially given Kim Yo-jong’s current role as the Director of Propaganda and Agitation [5]. South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in appears open to discussion, contrary to the USA’s desire to set a hard boundary, and the previous UK representative in Pyongyang, James Hoare, claims that North Korea may seek to exploit this fact, sparking tension between South Korea and USA [6].

It seems possible that such tactics may prove to be successful, as US officials appear rather perturbed by the actions of South Korea. Mike Pence, Vice President of the United States, has opted to skip dinners involving direct contact with the North Korean officials and to abstain from any interaction when seated next to them. Additionally, Pence claims that his presence at the Winter Olympics will serve as a reminder to all that North Korea is simply doing this all as a publicity stunt, and “everything the North Koreans do at the Olympics is a charade to cover up the fact that they are the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet” [6].

It seems however, despite all the rocky relations and tension on all sides, those actually competing within the Olympics are more than happy to compete under the same Korean flag. As the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off, only time will tell if this will serve as a bridge to reconciliation between two sides of a 70-year long conflict, or a spark that will lead to irreparable damage in the peninsula.

Gillian Xie is a freshman studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University. She is the Blogger for Defense Affairs in East Asia.

Works Cited

[1] Aleem, Zeeshan. 2018. North and South Korea marched together under one flag at the Olympics. 9 February. Accessed February 10, 2018.

[2] Baynes, Chris. 2018. Winter Olympics 2018: Protesters clash with police in Pyeongchang during demonstration against North Korea. 9 Febuary. Accessed February 10, 2018.

[3] Haas, Benjamin. 2018. Kim Jong-un's sister to attend Winter Olympics opening ceremony. 7 February. Accessed February 10, 2018 .

[4] . 2018. Winter Olympics bring peace to Korean peninsula – for now. 7 February. Accessed February 10, 2018.

[5] Hickey, Michael. 2011. The Korean War: An Overview. 21 March. Accessed February 10, 2018.

[6] Pengelly, Martin. 2018. Mike Pence to stop North Korea 'hijacking' Winter Olympics, aide says. 4 February. Accessed February 10, 2018.

[7] Stone, Mark. 2013. North And South Korea: A Quick History. 25 July. Accessed February 10, 2018.

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