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Asia-Pacific / Olympics

North and South Korea: An Olympic Truce?

The tension between the United States and North Korea, which has left the world on edge over the past few months, seems to have taken a shocking yet welcome turn toward a potential resolution. On March 23rd, South Korean officials confirmed that North Korea agreed to hold high-level talks in the coming weeks. Moreover, President Trump and Kim Jong-un have expressed their potential interest in an unprecedented meeting. The goal of these inter-Korean conferences is to not only mend relations between these two nations, but to also encourage a policy of weapons de-escalation and general stability. The Olympic Games held in Pyeongchang just a few weeks ago seem, in large part, to have jump-started and produced this tenuous peace. Yet the historical track record of Olympic Game conflicts and the speculation regarding potential motives behind North Korean inclusion in the Games make cooperation and peace seem incredibly unlikely.

Sports and athletic competition, long thought of as the key to uniting people of all backgrounds, promote a variety of values that eclipse barriers such as language and cultural differences; thus, the Olympic Games have been portrayed as the ultimate peace-rendering spectacle for years. In this spirit, the idea of the Olympic truce is embodied by the dove of peace, which symbolizes camaraderie and harmony amongst all participants. In fact, participating nations agree yearly to discontinue all conflicts for seven days before, during, and after the games.

Despite these lofty aspirations to attain peace, many were initially skeptical of North Korea’s involvement in the Games and its interest in mending relations with its southern neighbor, especially since Kim Jong-un’s administration was trading nuclear threats with the United States and its allies and testing ballistic missiles just weeks before the start of the Games. Americans, joined by others around the world, viewed North Korea’s decision to participate as a ploy for an underhanded political agenda meant to drive a wedge between South Korea and its American ally. To many, it seemed strange that North Korea, who sent only two athletes based on merit, who missed the deadline for sending a delegation by weeks, and who refused inclusion in the Olympics for months beforehand was suddenly interested in repairing relations with its southern neighbor.

Before the start of the Olympics, there was speculation that this newfound interest in joining forces with South Korea, as demonstrated through North Korea’s involvement in the Olympic Games and Kim Jong Un’s recent invitation to include South Korea at a summit held in Pyongyang, was the result of American sanctions finally taking their toll on the North Korean economy. Critics speculate that North Korea is using the Olympic Games and further peace talks in order to wedge a gap between South Korea and its American ally. Others suggest that North Korea’s decision to join the games was a strategic maneuver in order for Pyongyang to gain more time to expand their nuclear program.

Despite the surprising calmness during the 2018 Olympic Games, historical records have shown a theme of violent exchanges between North and South Korea. In 2006, both nations held the flag together at the opening ceremony, and then North Korea proceeded to test launch its first nuclear weapon months later. In the days following the 2014 Asian Games, North and South Korea engaged in hostilities over the border. Even worse, many still remember the last time South Korea hosted the Olympic Games in 1988, as North Korea bombed a South Korean plane and killed over 110 passengers. Before the Games, many argued that North Korea should not be allowed to compete alongside the world’s top athletes given the extent to which they have violated numerous United Nations resolutions and international laws. Thus, many had reason to believe that the 2018 Games would precipitate the same sense of hostility between the two nations.

However, the end of the 2018 Olympics, which wrapped up on Sunday, February 25th, came and went without any violence between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. Some Korean athletes even continued to hold flags depicting a single, unified nation. Although there is much ground to be made between all three nations and the current sense of stability is undoubtedly tenuous, many are hopeful about the upcoming talks and summit, and credit the values promoted by the Olympic Games as catalysts for peace.