In the bathroom, during the opening ceremony of the World Cup in South Africa last summer, the North Korean ambassador in Pretoria grabbed hold of the arm of his South Korean counterpart and threatened South Korea with non-specific measures unless Seoul stopped accusing North Korea of sinking the South Korean navy vessel Cheonan. The Cheonan was sunk in March last year and 46 South Koreans died.
This event is an important backdrop to what is happening now between North and South Korea. Maybe it was the bombing of the island of Yeonpyeong the North Korean ambassador was referring to?
The incident in Pretoria is a good illustration of how few channels and occasions the two Koreas – which technically remain at war – have for diplomatic talks. The question is whether sport can be used as a diplomatic channel to improve relations between the two foes. Beyond the public toilets of the sports arenas, that is.
Usually, athletes are criticized for caring little about politics. They only care about things that directly concern themselves. But in some cases – particularly in the case of Korea – athletes’ lack of political commitment can be a strength.
We saw some bright spots during last year’s Asian Games in China. Because of the North Korean bombing of the South Korean warship in March 2010, North and South Korean athletes were not officially allowed to have contact during last year’s Asian Games, and there have been protests in the stands during basketball and football events.
But one has also saw spontaneous fraternization between athletes from the two countries: the South Korean gold medal winner in pistol shooting, Hong Seong Hwan, helped the North Korean bronze winner Kim Jong Su up on the podium in a friendly gesture, there was a jovial atmosphere between the North and South Korean basketball players when the countries played against each other, and the female South Korean archer, Yun Ok-hee, said that the archers from the two countries were very good friends outside the arena. Although these are scattered examples they at least give some glimmer of hope.
The relationship between the two countries has in recent decades been better on the sports ground than at the political level. Football (along with tennis, basketball, gymnastics and taekwondo) has played an important role in reconciliation efforts between North and South Korea.
In 1990, reconciliation matches in football were played in Seoul and Pyongyang. The following year, it was a joint South and North Korean team that competed at the World Youth Championship in Portugal. When South Korea took the fourth place in the football World Cup in 2002, Kim Jong-Il, surprisingly, sent a congratulatory telegram to South Korea’s President Kim Dae Jung. And in 2002, reconciliation matches was played in Seoul.
The two countries marched together at the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and the Athens Olympics in 2004. In 2002, South Korea paid for North Korean cheering squad at the Asian Games in Busan, and athletes from the two countries marched together at the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Doha in 2006.
It was expected that the two countries would participate under the same flag at the Olympics in Beijing, but to many people’s disappointment this did not happen. The official reason was that they could not agree on the rules for selection – North Korea wanted selections based on population figures, while South Korea wanted to select athletes based on performance. This setback showed that China has – despite its strengths in many areas – limited possibilities to influence Korean reconciliation. That is not good for China.
2008 a turning point
If we use the sports ground as a benchmark, a new cooling of the relationship between the two countries started in 2008. A clear sign of this could be seen on the football pitch. In March 2008, North and South Korea played each other in a qualifying match for the World Cup in South Africa 2010 – their first official football match in 15 years. This was not problem-free. The first game was supposed to be played in North Korea. But when North Korea refused that South Korea could use its own flag and sing the South Korean national anthem before the match and instead suggested that they should hoist a common flag and play a joint Korean anthem, FIFA moved the match from Pyongyang to Shanghai in China.
More than toilet-diplomacy
Many have speculated if South Korea’s application for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang 2018 (and World Cup in 2022- which they lost) will be spoiled by North Korean bombs and South Korean intransigence.
Provided that a full-scale war does not break out between the two Koreas once again, the conflict between the two countries is a poor argument for not giving South Korea such sporting events. When we know that the sports ground is one of the few arenas in which North and South Koreans meet each other, these Championships and Games can actually help building bridges. What we certainly need to avoid is that the relationship between the two countries can only unfold in public toilets…