On January 9, ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed on a joint plan for the two nations’ Olympic teams to march in Opening Ceremonies under a United Korean flag, a display last done at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. In addition, the pair of countries will join forces in fielding a combined women’s ice hockey team.
This isn’t the first time sport has been used as a diplomatic tool. “Ping-pong diplomacy” helped the United States begin talks with China in the 1970s, as did ice hockey with Canada and the Soviet Union. Most recently, the game of cricket allowed enemies India and Pakistan to discuss disputed areas.
International sporting events such as the Olympics have also previously been opportunities to demonstrate foreign policy. Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics put anti-Semitism on the world stage, a unified Germany appeared in Olympic ceremonies in 1956-1964, Soviet-American tensions caused boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, and the 2016 Olympics hosted a refugee team.
These previous attempts at diplomacy have had varied results, but ultimately have largely achieved their intended purposes. In instances of developing lines of communication, in all cases up to this point, some form of discussion commenced. With respect to political demonstrations, strong reprimands have been conveyed clearly.
There is a case to be made, however, that this is the most precarious instance of sport diplomacy yet. Although talks are technically only being pursued by the two Koreas, in an age of Twitter and a incendiary United States President, one would be naive to pretend that Donald Trump’s presence certainly plays a part in discussions.
Assuming that is the case, only one other instance of sport diplomacy (Pakistan and India) have involved two sides with nuclear weapons attempting to open lines of communication. Although some may make the case that during the 2011 India-Pakistan cricket matches Pakistan was under the leadership of a diplomatically inconsistent Asif Ali Zardari, he is not nearly as volatile as either Kim Jong-Un or Donald Trump.
While Moon Jae-in seems keen to pursue a relationship with the North and Kim has seemed to ease the anti-Western rhetoric in recent weeks, the situation may be more bleak than it seems.
During the last great unification of separated nations, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990 and the reunification of Germany, a number of factors were different than that of the climate in the Korean Peninsula today.
For instance, global sentiment was largely in favor of German reunification. With the illusion of a Marxist Communism fading and the easing of Soviet regulations on the press and citizenry, a reunited Germany made obvious sense as both a social and economic vessel. This was predicated by Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall” speech in 1987, and members of the general population in both East and West Germany largely supported the joint state.
This is certainly not the case with the two Koreas. Just this week, as the North Korean women’s ice hockey team entered the South, a crowd of protestors met the envoy with boos and jeers. Seventy percent of South Korean citizens oppose the unified hockey team, claiming that Northern players will limit the ice time of the South. If this is any indication of the policy perspectives of the Southern populations, it is clear that they are content with at the very least a separate peace.
As for the North, their opinions are unclear. Although a cheerleader squad has been sent with the Northern delegation, these are government employees. North Korea has maintained its opacity with respect to public opinion in the country, and it is unknown the sentiment of the North Korean people on the united ice hockey team.
Moon Jae-in has expressed support for opening talks that may lead to a unified Korea, and certainly supports the demilitarization of the Peninsula. Kim Jong-Un, in a rare moment of diplomacy, has called on Koreans everywhere to promote communication and travel throughout the Peninsula and promised to thwart resistance to the unification of Korea. Kim echoed, however, his opposition to South Korean military exercises in conjunction with United States forces. A common practice, this has been utilized by the Trump administration to put pressure on the North and exercise American military hegemony in Eastern Asia.
Speaking of Trump, his reaction to the united ice hockey team has been muted thus far. Besides attempting to take credit for the initiation of talks, he has not publicly voiced support for or denounced the team itself. Officials within the Trump administration have noted that they are concerned with the North attempting to legitimize its government and see the joint team as an attempt to create separation between the United States and South Korea. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence will be present in South Korea for the Olympics to prevent the “murderous” North from using the Olympics as a propaganda engine.
The tense peace between leaders could change at any moment, however. With Kim dictating the pace and subject of talks, and Trump armed with the power of Twitter, two of the most impulsive world leaders have the tools to fundamentally change the conversation around the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, both leaders have the tendency to be reactionary, meaning a misstep, slight, or aggression could set off a chain of events leading to a worse political climate than before.
While history seems to predict that the outcomes of these talks between North and South Korea will have a positive impact, especially because they involve a sport, a political situation of this magnitude has not been seen before. As a result, every moment, from now until the conclusion of the Games on February 25, will be charged with preserving the progress made thus far in the realm of global security.