Seoul, South Korea — Tears and hugs after North and South Korean women won the 1991 team table tennis world championships. A standing ovation when athletes from the two Koreas marched together to open the 2000 Sydney Olympics. A selfie taken by a South Korean gymnast with her North Korean opponent that went viral at last year’s Rio de Janeiro Games.
Seven months ahead of the Pyeongchang Olympics, South Korea’s new liberal President Moon Jae-in hopes the first Winter Games on Korean soil could produce more of these feel-good sparks of seeming reconciliation and pave the way for deep engagement to ease the rivals’ 72-year standoff.
In a good development for Moon, IOC President Thomas Bach on Monday expressed his support for Moon’s overture while North Korea recently allowed its taekwondo demonstration team to perform in the South in the Koreas’ first sports exchanges since Moon’s May 10 inauguration.
But there is also plenty of skepticism about Moon’s efforts because of a serious escalation in North Korean nuclear and missile arsenals — North Korea on Tuesday test-fired a missile likely capable of striking Alaska — and a weak North Korean winter sports program that sent only two athletes to the 2010 Vancouver Games and none to the 2014 Sochi Games. Sydney and Rio were both Summer Olympics.
North Korea’s only IOC member, Chang Ung, said last week that cooperation on the Pyeongchang Games could prove hard considering the shortage of time and difficult politics.
During a speech at the world taekwondo championship in the South that drew Chang and North Korean athletes, Moon appealed for North Korea’s Olympic participation while talking about the power of sports and citing the historic “pingpong diplomacy” between the United States and China in the 1970s.
“I think (North Korea’s Olympic attendance) would greatly contribute in realizing Olympic values, which are about bringing humanity together and promoting world peace,” Moon said during the event’s opening ceremony on June 24.
Moon has previously said he wants North Korean athletes to visit the South by crossing over the heavily fortified land border between the Koreas — a deeply symbolic event that would excite frenzied media coverage.
He has also proposed holding a pre-Olympic celebratory event at the North’s scenic Diamond Mountain, where the two Koreas once ran a tourism program.
Moon’s sports minister, Do Jong-hwan, told lawmakers recently that South Korea was also studying a joint women’s ice hockey team with North Korea for the Pyeongchang Games. Other ideas: using a recently built North Korean ski resort as a training site and adding North Korea to the Olympic torch relay route.
During their meeting at Moon’s presidential palace in Seoul on Monday, Bach said he actively supports Moon’s push for Korean peace and said it’s in accordance with the Olympic spirit, according to Moon’s office. But some of the measures floated by the Moon government require formal IOC approvals, and Pyeongchang organizers say nothing has been officially determined yet.
Chang suggested it might be too late to try to field a single Olympic team, saying it took five to six months or 22 rounds of inter-Korean talks before fielding a single women’s table tennis team in 1991.
He also questioned how much sports could impact relations between the Koreas.
“Did table tennis improve relations between the United States and China? Pingpong was able to work as a catalyst because a political foundation had already been created. The world was saying pingpong made things work, but that wasn’t the case,” Chang told South Korean reporters last week.
“Politics are always above sports.”
Relations between the Koreas are dismal as the North pursues its nuclear ambitions.