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Can the Olympics facilitate peace on the Korean Peninsula?

Potential conflict involving North Korea, South Korea, and the United States has recently become one of the world’s most pressing geopolitical issues, and the rhetorical and military situation on the peninsula has only become more fractured in the last 18 months. In the shadow of these increased tensions, the Olympics have been a stage not just for winter sports, but for diplomacy, peace-making and a small semblance of hope. The fact that the games are in South Korea has presented an opportunity for a thaw in the tension between the North and South, and the two nations have used the Olympics as an opportunity to engage in significant dialogue for the first time in over a decade. Although the North Koreans have a limited athletic delegation, the regime is engaging in a charm offensive, using demonstrations like cheerleading displays for the unified Korean team, musical performances, and other diplomatic overtures aimed at presenting a different-from-usual image of North Korea to western visitors and the press.

Kim Yo Jong shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae In
Kim Yo Jong shakes hands with South Korean President Moon Jae In (Credit: Reuters)

Cynics have dismissed the openness being presented by the North Koreans as political theater meant to lower the guard of the global community and distract from more notorious behaviors of the regime. While this may have merit, there is a case to be made that the optimism surrounding these games has opened up a real diplomatic opportunity for dialogue and engagement between the North and South which both sides would be wise to pursue. Fortunately, there are already examples of progress being made between the two nations. In an encouraging move, Kim Jong-un has invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit Pyongyang, opening an opportunity for the first meeting between Korean leaders since 2007, and Moon has signaled a willingness to participate under the right conditions. In addition, the North has sent several high level officials including Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, to the South for meetings with the South Korean government. These meetings are already historic- Kim Yo Jong is the first member of the core Kim family to enter South Korea for talks since the war ended in 1953. Only time will tell whether these Olympics will prove as a turning point in this tense diplomatic scenario, but if they do, it will not be without precedent.

The US Hockey team celebrates after defeating the USSR in the 1980 winter games. (Credit: Sports Illustrated)
The US Hockey team celebrates after defeating the USSR in the 1980 winter games. (Credit: Sports Illustrated)

Sports have long held a role in global diplomacy, having at the very least served as an important tool to rally domestic support and reaffirm commitment to national ideologies. Particularly during the Cold War era, it seemed that not a single Olympics would go by without a political boycott, a ban, or some other major political message attached. The politicization of the games brought different global conflicts into the public consciousness, and were often physical manifestations of these conflicts, particularly between Soviet- and US- aligned nations. The 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ was not only a victory for a scrappy team of American amateurs against Soviet professionals, but symbolized a cultural and political victory for America in the overall cold war. On the darker side, the 1972 ‘Munich Massacre’, the kidnapping and murder of 12 Israeli athletes, brought the conflict between Israel and Palestine into the forefront of conversations around the world, and prompted diplomatic discussion of the issue in forums such as the United Nations.

Outside of the Olympics, sport has played a unique role in diplomacy, and has had a knack for thawing tensions between states and changing public perceptions. The most famous example of this phenomenon was the ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ between the US and China, which helped pave the way for President Nixon’s historic visit with Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. In 1971, at a tournament in Japan, American ping pong players befriended the Chinese team through an accidental encounter on a shuttle bus. As the teams were on their way out of Japan, Chairman Mao invited the Americans on an all-expenses-paid 10 day trip through China, centered on friendly matches with the Chinese ping pong team with the slogan “Friendship First and Competition Second.” While in China, the Americans were treated like foreign dignitaries rather than athletes, and were able to meet Premier Zhao Enlai, who thanked them for initiating the diplomatic thaw between the US and China. On the same day, the Nixon administration relaxed sanctions on the Chinese government and removed the trade embargo against the nation. Less than one year later, President Nixon himself embarked on his historic visit to China, the first ever US President to visit the mainland. Although a thaw in relations was a desired achievement of the Nixon administration from the beginning, the relationship between the two ping pong teams undeniably catalyzed the diplomatic side of things, and allowed for the two nations to ease tensions and move on to each become the other’s largest economic partner.

Richard Nixon shakes hands with Chairman Mao on his historic visit to China (National Archives)
Richard Nixon shakes hands with Chairman Mao on his historic visit to China (Credit: National Archives)

Although the context of the thaw between the United States and China was different than the current Korean case, Ping-Pong Diplomacy demonstrates that a small positive event can provide an opening for larger progress. As the Olympics conclude this weekend and athletes of the unified Korean team return home to their respective sides of the DMZ, pressure will shift back to political leaders to capitalize on the diplomatic situation. In the case of the Korean peninsula, it is unclear that the good-will felt during the Olympics will transition into any lasting changes. North Korea is still building up a nuclear arsenal, after all, and the United States will remain an existential threat to the Kim regime until a greater solution is reached. The coming weeks may highlight any diplomatic successes made during the Olympics, but may also potentially expose failures on either side to make serious progress toward peace. The most telling sign will be whether or not the proposed summit between presidents Kim and Moon actually is carried out, or whether the gestures were meant to grab headlines and distract. The world will be watching the North Koreans closely once the Olympics conclude for signs of aggression or peace, either of which would mark a serious shift in the dialogue and could potentially lead to a resolution or a relaxation of tension.