SPORT is often described as a trivial, largely inconsequential pastime – but could it play an important role in easing friction between North and South Korea?
This week’s apparent thawing of tensions between the feuding nations occurred not because of a political or economic spur but because of sport.
South Korea will host the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next month – and it is under that banner the two countries met to discuss ways in which they can work together.
They will compete in the women’s ice hockey competition as a united Korea, while athletes from both countries will walk under one flag at the opening ceremony, as they last did at the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China.
Last week, the countries sat down for the first time in two years, when officials met in the ‘truce’ village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea.
High on their agenda was putting on a united front at the Winter Olympics – and talks progressed quickly.
While some have commended the dialogue between the countries, the breakthrough has not gone done well with everyone in South Korea.
A recent poll showed only four out of 10 South Koreans are in favour of using the unified white-and-blue flag, while many conservatives have criticised the decision.
Hong Joon-pyo, leader of South Korea’s main conservative opposition party, said: “We are turning the Pyeongchang Olympics that we’ve got into the Pyongyang Olympics.” He added that South Korea president Moon Jae-in was “dancing to the tune” of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Moon, however, feels marching under one flag “will serve as a chance to warm solidly frozen South-North ties”. He added: “If we march together or field a single team, I think that can be a further step in developing South-North relations.”
Moon’s approval rating has nosedived to a four-month low of 67 percent in the wake of recent announcements concerning the North and the Olympics. Even among his core support of 20- and 30-somethings, his approval rating has slipped to 75 and 82 percent, respectively, from 81 and 89 a week ago.
North Korea’s late decision to participate in the South’s Games will cause logistically issues for the organisers, although the International Olympic Committee is expected to rubber-stamp the nations’ plans at a meeting this weekend.
Incorporating North Korean players to a settled South Korean ice hockey team could also pose problems, as the team’s coach, Sarah Murray, highlighted this week.
“Adding somebody so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous just for team chemistry because the girls have been together for so long,” she said.
But is there any chance sport will end up playing a meaningful role in easing tensions between the North and South?
While it has clearly opened doors, perhaps we should remain cautious and see whether there is lasting progress – beyond any show for the world’s cameras under the Olympic rings.