Deadly enemies bury hatchets for Olympics
Can sport really spread peace and brotherhood? Today at the launch of the winter games in South Korea national leaders on the brink of war will rub shoulders and smile for the cameras.
The site of the 2018 Winter Olympics could very possibly become a battlefield in the coming years.
Pyeongchang, in South Korea’s north-east, is a place transformed as thousands of Olympians, fans and journalists swarm to this remote area for the 23rd Winter Olympic Games. The event is yet another symbol of the remarkable success story of South Korea.
And yet, 60 miles away from the ski jump and the ice hockey arena lies the most heavily militarised border in the world. Beyond that, North Korea — where no South Korean is allowed to tread.
Today’s opening ceremony comes at a time when North and South Korea are simultaneously closer to all out war and permanent peace than they have been for decades.
North Korea launched 17 missile tests last year. Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un have traded barbs for months.
As Joshua Keating writes in Slate: “Terrifying scenarios, including the bombardment of one of the world’s largest cities and the use of nuclear weapons, are not out of the question. But first, there will be figure skating.”
However, recent weeks have seen some real cause for hope that these Olympics could help avoid catastrophe.
For years it had been assumed that the North would boycott the games. But athletes from both halves of Korea will march together under a unified flag at the opening ceremony. They will field a joint women’s ice hockey team. Kim Jong-un used his New Year speech to offer talks with the South.
Yet the games remain a diplomatic minefield. The USA will be represented by vice president Mike Pence. He will be travelling with the father of Otto Warmbier, the student who was arrested in North Korea and then fell into a coma from which he never recovered.
Also present will be Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, marking the first time that a member of Kim's ruling dynasty has visited since the Korean war. South Korea itself is in the grip of a corruption scandal that brought down the previous president.
Can a mere sporting tournament calm these tensions?
Let the games begin
History suggests it will, say some. Sport has frequently been a symbol of peace. Good examples include the post-Apartheid Rugby World Cup in South Africa, while “ping-pong diplomacy” brought China and the USA closer together in the 1970s. So much for the adage that “sport and politics don’t mix”; they can, and should.
There is so much that can go wrong, reply pessimists. There is a great danger that the travelling North Koreans will see these Olympics as South Korean triumphalism backed by the hated imperialists of America. Think of the unpredictability of the major players: we should simply be hoping that the games do not make things worse.
- Can sport really have an effect on politics?
- Do you feel threatened by North Korea?
- As a class, take a vote on which Winter Olympics event interests you most.
- Imagine that Mike Pence bumps into a senior North Korean dignitary at the opening ceremony. Write a five minute conversation between the two.
Some People Say...
“Diplomacy: the art of restraining power.”Henry Kissinger
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics take place today. In the crowd, all sitting very close together, will be US vice president, Mike Pence, the president of South Korea, and the sister of the North Korean leader. We know that North Korean missile tests have ramped up tensions in the region, but that the general atmosphere leading up to the games has been one of diplomacy and friendship.
- What do we not know?
- Just how likely war with North Korea really is. It is very unlikely that North Korea would start a war unprovoked, as it would never be able to defeat the combined force of South Korea and the USA. We also do not know whether, during the tournament, the mood of brotherhood between North and South Korea will be broken.
- Most heavily militarised border
- The two parts of Korea are separated by the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). The two countries are separated by 2.5 miles of no man’s land.
- Trump has repeatedly called Kim Jong-un “Little Rocket Man”. In response to this, a senior North Korean figure accused the USA of declaring war.
- Otto Warmbier
- Warmbier visited North Korea on a guided tour in 2015. While there, he allegedly attempted to steal a propaganda poster, for which he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years hard labour. Approximately one month after his sentencing, Warmbier suffered severe neurological injury. Warmbier was released in 2017 after 17 months in a coma and died a week later.
- Kim Yo-jong
- The 30-year-old’s current title is “Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea”.
- Ping-pong diplomacy
- In the early 1970s China, then a state as closed as North Korea is now, and the USA, sent table-tennis players to each other. The event marked a thaw in Chinese-US relations and eventually paved the way to a visit to Beijing by President Richard Nixon.