While progress on denuclearization talks between the United States and North Korea has slowed and international sanctions mean economic cooperation is on hold, sports diplomacy remains one area where inter-Korean cooperation continues. However, despite early progress, there are potential limits to how far it can take inter-Korean relations.
Whether it be inter-Korean relations or U.S.-China relations, states can turn to sports to raise their international profile or break the ice with adversaries. In the current case of inter-Korean relations, the Moon administration used the then upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympics to reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and create an opening for dialogue with the North.
While sports diplomacy has a long history, it also has a mixed history in international relations and on the Korean Peninsula. Perhaps most famously, ping-pong was used to break the ice in U.S.-China relations, and sports have also been a platform for emerging countries to raise their profile on the world stage as South Korea did with the 1988 Summer Olympics and China with 2008 Summer Olympics. But to bring change and reshape perspectives, broader change needs to be taking place as well.
In the case of inter-Korean relations, North and South Korea first began exploring the idea of fielding a joint team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, though the effort ultimately failed. Nearly three decades later the two Koreas would field joint men’s and women’s table tennis teams at the 41st World Table Tennis Championships and a joint men’s team at the 6th FIFA World Youth Championships in 1991.
Despite an initial spurt of cooperation, international sports cooperation would wane until the opening of the Sunshine Era under South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. At the Summer Olympics in Sydney in 2000, the two Koreas marched together at the opening and closing ceremonies under the unification flag for the first time. They would do so at other sporting events later that decade, but the two sides were unable to agree to any new unified teams.
With a change in administrations in South Korea in 2008, efforts at sports diplomacy largely came to an end as relations between the two Koreas worsened. While sports helped create an opening in inter-Korean relations, the progress has been fleeting as the two sides have been unable to change the underlying conditions on the Korean Peninsula.
The current efforts at sports diplomacy have faced challenges as well. While North Korea’s participation at the PyeongChang Games was a clear success in helping to restore dialogue and easing concerns that North Korea might seek to disrupt the Olympics, official Olympic sponsors became weary of being too closely associated with North Korea’s participation.
In addition, the decision to field a unified women’s hockey team at the Games was not without controversy. In surveys prior to the Olympics, 70 percent of South Koreans opposed the idea of a unified women’s hockey team and tens of thousands of Koreans petitioned the Blue House against the idea, while the South Korean coach expressed “mixed feelings” about the decision. Many were concerned about players who had worked to earn their place on the Olympic roster losing playing time or even their spot to players from North Korea.
The public concerns over the formation of a unified women’s team were also exacerbated by some missteps. One unnamed Blue House official said, “I’m 100 percent sure nobody would have paid attention to them [the women’s hockey team] if it wasn’t for the proposal.” Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said that “Speaking honestly, the women’s ice hockey team is not going to win a medal during the Olympics, is it?” While Lee would apologize for his remarks, the decision continued to draw negative attention up to the start of the Games.
Learning from that experience, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism surveyed South Korea’s 40 national sports federations to see which would be interested in forming joint teams with North Korea. However, only seven sports federations expressed interest – table tennis, where there is already a history of joint teams, basketball, judo, gymnastics, soft tennis, and canoeing and rowing.
Since the inter-Korean summit, the two Koreas have worked to continue their efforts at sports diplomacy and fielded a series of joint table tennis teams at the world championships and other tournaments. Additionally, similar to the PyeongChang Olympics, the two countries are fielding unified teams in women’s basketball and men’s and women’s rowing and canoeing at the Asian Games in Indonesia.
However, the Korea Football Association’s (KFA) decision not to participate in forming a joint team with North Korea is emblematic of one major challenge. South Korean males are required to take part in military service, but may be exempted if they win a medal at the Olympics or a gold at the Asian Games. In the case of soccer, a strong performance at the World Cup qualifies as well. Having already been knocked out early in this year’s World Cup, despite a stunning victory over defending champion Germany, the best hope for a military exemption for the current national team players is winning the gold at the Asian Games. While the KFA based its decision on a need to boost teamwork on the existing team, it also said that the players’ potential sacrifices, including to their pro careers, needed to be considered.
The issue of military exemptions also means that the burden of inter-Korean sports diplomacy has largely been carried by female athletes. While there are joint men’s teams in canoeing and rowing in the Asian Games, the larger burden will fall to the women’s basketball team as lower profile sports such as canoeing and rowing are not being broadcast.
There are ways to address these concerns, but limits as well. In case of the women’s hockey team, South Korea was able to petition the International Ice Hockey Federation to allow them to expand the roster so no South Korean athletes would have to lose their place on the Olympic team with the addition of North Koreans. However, there are clear advantages to larger rosters in international competition and other countries will likely object to future efforts to expand the Korean roster, as Switzerland did during the PyeongChang Olympics. The more common joint teams become, the more difficult it will likely be to convince international athletic associations to allow Korea an exemption to rules on roster size.
Another potential solution would be to grant a military exemption to male athletes who take part in joint teams regardless of how the team performs. This would address concerns about the impact on quality of play by adding North Koreans and remove the concerns about how it would affect South Korean athletes’ ability to secure a military exemption, but it could still lead to tensions over which players lose roster spots and if the last players cut should also receive a military exemption.
While the goal of sports diplomacy is to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula and to build inter-Korean ties, it is unlikely to continue helping to change perspectives on both sides of the DMZ if the relationship itself is not being reshaped. If the two Koreas are able to find a way to begin changing their relationship in a fundamental way, sports diplomacy could help change views in North and South Korea. But to do so there will need to be more equality moving forward in the development of joint teams, which means that the issue of military conscriptions will need to be addressed. Otherwise, South Korea’s female athletes will be asked to carry the unfair burden of changing hearts and minds in both Koreas.