The 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics: a white out for Korean Diplomacy

A white out, in skiing describes the weather conditions where already low visibility drops to almost nothing. This essentially illustrates that the future is fairly hazy and the advancing terrain, unpredictable. Has PyeongChang Winter Olympics led inter-Korean relations into a white out zone?

This year’s winter games have carried much more than the gold medal speculations and the usual concerns for doping. There has been more up for grabs than world titles and sponsorship deals. We are potentially talking about something much, much bigger.

According to Ock Hyun-ju of the Korean Herald, the Republic of South Korea has sought to expand its dialogue with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea through conversation surrounding the PyeongChang games. Utilizing this very recent thaw in relations and maximizing this “peace” momentum to potentially ‘pave the way for talks’ between the DRK and the United States. Media attention in South Korea has focused on U.S. relations between the two Koreas and coverage in the U.S. has tediously been fixated on North Korea as a serious global threat.

In the public response for his frosty reception to the dictator’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, at the games’ opening ceremony, Vice President Pence described Yo-jong as a “a central pillar of the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet” and the Kim regime as “an evil family clique”.

One week prior to the games, a phone call was shared between President Moon Jae-in and President Trump about human rights issues in North Korea. Moon, according to the Korean Herald reportedly expressed his highest hopes to Trump on the ability of the Olympics ‘to help build peace on the Korean Peninsula’.

Upon mentioning the unique power of sports in its ability to unite all peoples in his opening ceremony speech, the President of the International Olympic Committee accredited the joint march between the Korean athletes from the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea under a shared flag as “a great example (of) this unifying power”. However, in the following days, President Moon at a press centre when speaking of the high expectations surrounding a potential inter-Korean summit with Kim in PyeongChang alluded to the Korean proverb, “not going to the well for scorched-tea rice” (English equivalent ‘not putting the cart before the horse’).

Source: Pixabay

If the summit does transpire between the two Koreas , could this very well be the first of Kim’s maneuvers to turn the United States into a paper tiger at the round table?

For the North Korean dictator, partaking in the games and engaging in subsequent dialogue with the South has been speculated as nothing more than a PR exercise, an opportune window to divert the world’s gaze from the nuclear controversy. Udo Merkel, an expert on North Korean Sport notes how from the dictator’s perspective “it is important to participate, get into the limelight and change the discourse from poverty, starvation and the nuclear program”.  The PyeongChang Games has been the ideal opportunity to rejuvenate the state’s image- a one time show managed by Kim to broadcast North Korean prestige (consisting of a cheering squad of 230 women and a 140-member orchestra).

President Moon, who took presidency in 2017 and a former human rights lawyer has undeniably brought a freshness to the country’s politics. To date, he has made significant efforts to improve relations and widen the channels of communication with the North. Regardless of where inter-Korean relations are heading, one would find it hard pressed to argue that there have not been significant shifts within the past six weeks. From newspapers headlines warning us of a potential nuclear war to televisions broadcasting smiling Korean children cheering at the side lines of a unified Korean women’s hockey team game.

At a diplomatic level, over the last few years, South Korea has increasingly been the middle man between the United States and North Korea. Since 2017, President Moon has experienced an intensification of intimidations from the U.S. and late night calls from President Trump. Despite President Moon’s advice on restraining expectations regarding Kim Jong Un’s invitation to the President to meet in PyeongChang, this is a real breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.

Note this heavy lifting in diplomacy has come at a slight cost to the President. Gallup Korea has reported a fall in popular support for Moon from those in their twenties and thirties to 67% from previous fluctuations in between highs of 72 and 82%, within the space of one week. Understandably, not all welcome this recent thawing. According to Professor Young Ho at the Sungshin University in Seoul, “Young South Koreans protesting the extended hand to their Korean neighbour is contemplatable. The gap between the two Koreas is simply just too large to be patched with just a romantic vision of national unity”. In early February , The Korean Times reported on conservative civic groups , up to 4,000 in size  who had gathered in Seoul, holding faces of Kim Jong-Un which had been obscured by red X markings.

Source: Flickr

According to the Korean Institute for National Unification (KINU) in July 2017, 47.3% of South Koreans over sixty believe in a potentially unified Korean Peninsula. Clearly there is a degree of romantic nationalism, a belief that there can be a single Korean nation state. Only 20.5% of young South Koreans in their twenties believe such –  the vast majority seeing Kim Jong-un as nothing other than a ruthless dictator.

Being realistic, perhaps the most likely of outcomes in the coming weeks and months is that the games will have delivered very little worthy change to the Korean peninsula. An event in diplomatic history for South Korea to bookmark but probably not to memorialize.

Sport has a strong emotive character and it has in the past broken down legendary hostile barriers. It has been almost fifty years now since ping-pong diplomacy thawed Sino-American relations.

With the successful conclusion of the games, and as the fog lifts from over the  future of inter-Korean relations, we will probably be left somewhat none the wiser.

Caoimhe Kirwan

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