On January 17, 2018, just three weeks before the start of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, North Korea and South Korea announced that the North would participate in this year’s Olympics. The two states will enter the opening ceremonies together under the Korea Unification flag, engage in joint training sessions, and attempt to field a joint women’s hockey team. Many who have been following the Olympics and the diplomatic crises regarding North Korean nuclear capabilities were surprised by this eleventh-hour announcement, and many peace activists praised this move as an important shift toward dialogue. This is happening after a ten-year hiatus on joint sports appearances, and the two sides will march together as they did in other international competitions, most notably the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 2004 Athens Olympics, and 2006 Turin Olympics. The North will send athletes, supporters, and a diplomatic delegation. This move has been seen as mutually beneficial–while South Korea benefits by reducing the perception of military threat during this international mega-event, the North Korean regime can extract some economic concessions, defer nuclear discussions, and frankly extend its survival. And clearly both states want to wrest control of their interactions from the chaos brewed by the puerile yet dangerous statements of Donald Trump.
While cultural interactions between the two states have been extremely limited over the last sixty-five years, the two states have had a sporadic history of sporting exchanges across much of this period. Sporting events have operated as sites for human exchange between individuals that still maintain a strong sense of shared peoplehood. In the context of “sunshine policies” of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung (1998-2002), the North sent its first large civilian delegation to the South for the 2002 Busan Asian Games. While the presence of so many northern “civilians” was extraordinary, those who captured the most media attention were the female cheerleaders dubbed “northern beauties.” Characterized as nubile women, they were said to be sexual turn-ons for middle-aged Korean men. Similar delegations came south for the 2003 Daegu Universiade and the 2005 Asian Athletic Championships, but were met with increasingly negative media coverage as their anachronistic behavior and their propagandistic speech came be seen as invidious and pitiful. In general, the hope and general optimism that came in the wake of the 2000 Inter-Korean Summit was replaced by resentment and fatigue after the exposure of a number of payola scandals related to the “sunshine policies” and the killings of a few South Koreans by North Korean military personnel. After nearly ten years of conservative rule that effectively shut down all cultural forms of engagement, the new South Korean administration has revisited prior strategies by courting the North. Already the trope of the “Northern beauties” has been revived as media stories have come to focus on the curious visitors. This dimension certainly offers an interesting narrative focus for global media coverage searching for a new and unique angle on the North-South divide. Indeed, the dramatic entry of the North adds an element of mystery, sexual interest, and even danger that should bring more attention to an event struggling with garnering national and global interest.
Peeling back the celebratory media coverage, there is a great deal of cynicism on the part of many in the South on both the left and the right about the participation of the North. As with other places in the world that historically celebrated the Olympics, attitudes toward the mega-event have changed as citizens cast doubt on their national value and economic benefits. Even prior to the marketing nightmare caused by tensions with the North, the Olympics were already beset by disinterest stemming from associations with the corruption of President Park Geun-hye and her associates and a sense that the Games were being misdirected by lackeys in a backwater province. In stark contrast to the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 2002 World Cup, there has been little discussion of the games as a national event that requires the backing of the national public. In this context, there is a sense that this move on the part of the two states is an action that the public did not ask for that is taking place during an event that they didn’t really want.
Nevertheless, the South Korean government does not want to lose face in the context of an international event, and almost as soon as the President Moon Jae-in was elected, his administration worked to achieve the North’s participation as a way to signal a departure from the bellicose rhetoric of his predecessors and as a way to ensure an atmosphere of peace and security for the event. The South Korean public is severely divided on this issue. In general, young Koreans are uninterested in the complications of reunification and do not wish to be saddled by the economic burden of poor northerners flooding the South. The conservative critique is that South Korea, as a U.S. ally, has actively courted this rogue regime and has rewarded a dangerous pattern of behavior. The left has criticized this move as a temporary show of graciousness for the benefit of capitalist interests underpinning the games, and that there is no long-standing commitment to a lasting peace. Yet, in many ways, it has been the behavior of Donald Trump that has facilitated the exclusive dialogue between the two countries and produced what seems to be a rather extraordinary willingness to work together to make this happen.
Despite deep reservations, I want to suggest that these international sporting events can create contexts for positive change. For many Koreans, the interactions symbolize a continued hope for interaction and dialogue even after sixty-five years of division. Within the context of sporting competition, athletic bodies defy state discourses that work to dehumanize; wow, North Korean ice dancers Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik can evoke the feelings of romance and fun through their routine! Sporting contests are unpredictable and cannot be completely determined by national political propaganda. They offer one way that South Koreans and Koreans in the diaspora are able to see their “co-ethnics” in the North in ways that can transcend political ideologies and help them envision a shared future. Sports can offer a kind of “strategic universalism” by presenting an “arena” governed by shared rules and shared practices. This can be important when all other avenues to interaction seem impossible. While it’s temporary, I’ll take it as one of the few opportunities to visualize alternatives to warfare.
Rachael Miyung Joo, Assistant Professor in American Studies, has been teaching at Middlebury College since 2007. She received her B.A. from Pomona College, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Cultural and Social Anthropology from Stanford University.