Head to Head: Korean Sports Diplomacy

In February this year, the Winter Olympics will be held in the city of Pyeongchang, South Korea. The occasion has prompted unprecedented negotiations between the North and South, breaking two years of diplomatic stalemate. The question on the table was whether the North would be permitted to participle, and if so, under what terms? On the 9th February, it was agreed that North Korea would send a delegation of officials, athletes, and cheerleaders to the games - the two countries will also march together. 

So, how effective is sport as a route to conflict resolution? To what extent can it substitute more traditional forms of diplomacy? How enduring are its results?

And where do you stand? Vote in our poll below!

Supporting sports diplomacy - Marykate Monaghan, TalkPolitics Campaign Agent

“Sports Diplomacy has emerged as the frontrunner to overcoming the North Korean hurdle” - Marykate Monaghan

It’s worked before…

Sports diplomacy has proved the breakthrough before in other state relations, so why not now? If past experience is anything to go by, the talks surrounding the potential participation of North Korea in next month’s Winter Olympics could prove to be the vital turning point necessary to resolve the North Korean Missile Crisis. Sports has repeatedly been able to forge cooperative relationships between previously conflicting states by acting as an alternative channel to re-establish diplomatic dialogue. For example, suspended diplomatic dialogue was between the US and Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution was restored following the National American Wrestling team’s participation in the Takhti Cup held in Iran. Thus, away from other issues that may have caused a standstill in their communication, sports can establish an alternative channel for dialogue between antagonistic states. By centring the dialogue on issues related to the Winter Olympics, and not the threat of North Korea’s missile programme, the re-established communication paves the way towards more successful discussion on the latter at a future time. 

Moreover, sports diplomacy has proved a highly effective tool in de-escalating crises between states. For instance, tensions between Pakistan and India reached boiling point following the Kashmir Crisis in 2002, the cricket matches arranged between the two states proved pivotal in both easing the tension and preventing a further escalation of violence and conflict. The same could be repeated once more during the Winter Olympics; it is a monumental opportunity for North and South Korea to suppress the growing tension between them, and pave a way towards a peaceful resolution. Sports diplomacy has proved an essential turning point before in many states’ relationships, and will do so again. 

It’s working now...

The positive impact of sports diplomacy is already being felt on the Korean Peninsula. The prospect of participating in and discussing details for the Winter Olympics has prompted the re-opening of a diplomatic hotline that has been dormant for two years. This could yet be another breakthrough made possible only by sports diplomacy - diplomatic approaches towards the Korean situation finally stating to turn to more cooperative means, rather than the previous coercive methods and discourse. For example, as a result of the negotiations held to discuss the Winter Olympics’ arrangements last Friday, the US and South Korea postponed  previously planned joint military exercises. Thus, the turning point may already be in motion, as the first diplomatic talks for years replace the displays of military might that have becomes normalised over the last few months. Likewise, I’m sure many will agree that a sporting competition will prove much more substantial towards developing a resolution for the crisis than the nuclear ‘button-off’ suggested by the US president late last year.

It will work towards a cooperative future...

With the new cooperative approach established through sports diplomacy, comes a new hope of a peaceful resolution to the North Korean Missile Crisis. In contrast to President Trump's tweet in October claiming that Rex Tillerson, America's Secretary of State, was wasting his time in trying to negotiate with "Little Rocket Man", the meetings discussing the Winter Olympics have firmly put the diplomatic options back on the table.

Therefore, any suggested triviality associated with the employment of sport within diplomatic practice has been quashed by its importance in providing an alternative avenue to reopen dialogue, and possibly shift the crisis towards a more peaceful end than first thought. Sport has possibly ignited a desire to strengthen the relationship even further, as is evident from the compromise reached that the Northern and Southern Olympic teams fly a symbolic, unified Korean flag, a move which may well reflect the potential for a united Korean Peninsula in the future.

Clearly, the talks surrounding North Korea’s participation within the Winter Olympics have acted as a step towards more cooperative relations through easing the tension present; a small step, but a step seen almost to be unimaginable only a few months ago after North Korea’s ballistic missile launch. This will prove to be a marathon, not a sprint. Talks will take a long time, given the complicity of the situation and North Korean’s dedication towards their missile programme, but at least we are finally on the starting block because of the Winter Olympics. 

Therefore, the use of Sports Diplomacy has already proved to be a vital turning point in the North Korean Missile Crisis, and the re-establishment of diplomatic dialogue promises a more cooperative future through exchanging medals, not missiles. 

Further Reading:

Opposing sports diplomacy - Megan Field, TalkPolitics Campaign Agent

The two Koreas have marched under the same flag before, and on Wednesday, in the de-militarised zone of Panmunjom, they announced they would do so again at the Winter Olympics. Just as in Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, and Turin 2006, to name a few, commentators are watching optimistically, hoping that this could be the first step in thawing escalating political tensions. Unfortunately, sports diplomacy has so far failed to achieve any lasting peace; there is no reason to predict this will be the turning point in the crises. It is a charm offensive at best, but to think such efforts can be extended to other diplomatic channels is distinctly naive. 

Let us consider one example of this so called sports diplomacy; India and Pakistan used cricket to try to bridge the divide exacerbated by terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008. India blamed Pakistan for harbouring terrorists and it was hoped that the semifinal of the cricket World Cup would be a chance for the two Prime Ministers to make the first step towards reconciliation. Crucially, relationships between the two countries have now disintegrated to the point that India refuses to play Pakistan unless in an international tournament, citing it’s support for militant groups. This sheds light on the difficulties of translating such actions into any constructive political programme. 

In the same way, the two Koreas have in the past attempted to use sport as a political tool; in 1988 they negotiated joining together for the Seoul Olympics, but the talks collapsed and the North subsequently bombed a South Korean passenger jet (Korean Air Flight 858) in a bold endeavour to disrupt the games. With the 70th anniversary of the DPRK on the horizon, which will surely not go unmarked, the consequences of these talks collapsing could be catastrophic. 

South Korea, who said they plan to “make the most” of this opportunity, would do well to listen to warnings within the International Community that Pyongyang has no intention to give up their nuclear weapons. The comments of the Korean Central News Agency (the North Korean state media agency) highlight the fragility of this agreement, condemning South Korea for “trying so hard” to achieve their participation in the games, which “reveals their wicked intent of leading us to give up nuclear weapons”. They also raised concerns over President Moon Jae In’s assertion that Donald Trump should be credited for creating the environment for the talks, warning “the train and bus carrying our delegation to the Olympics are still in Pyongyang”. One wrong move by South Korea and this agreement will come crashing down. 

Whilst these efforts will offer some relief to those attending the Winter Olympics that there is no imminent threat from North Korea, the peace will be temporary. The US and South Korea agreed to suspend annual military drills in the North, a key factor in Kim’s cooperation, but these will surely be re-instated if the DPRK fail to offer any concessions of their own. As it stands, there has been no such cooperation and in one foul swoop, they could be back to square one.

North Korea will relish the prestige of being included in an international event of such standing, drawing as many concessions as possible whilst they can. Unfortunately, when the lights dim on the closing ceremony, the fact of the matter is that the same politicians are pulling the strings and the same tensions remain. It will take more than just team spirit to beat this state of war. 

Further Reading:

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Image: Republic of Korea @Flickr 


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