Mar 11th, 2018, 12:00 PM

Sports Diplomacy: North Korea Versus The World

By Cassandra Ovalle
Image Credit: Wikimedia/ North Korea at the 2010 Olympics Wikipedia
The Olympics' real competition takes place in the political arena.

Sports has always been a mechanism to strengthen or build relations between nations. It's an easy way of doing so because of it's universality. Sports have no language barrier, allowing them to "transcend linguistic and sociocultural differences" as the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs puts it. In 2013 and 2014, the world saw an unlikely friendship develop between former NBA player Dennis Rodman and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-Un over their love of basketball. Rodman became a sort of un-appointed ambassador to the country during that tumultuous era when Kenneth Bae was unlawfully being held prisoner in the DPRK causing much controversy. This was such an instance were sports was a method of diplomacy, even if not a long-term solution. On a larger spectrum, the Olympics are meant for countries to put their differences aside, yet the very idea of putting nations in competition can become a dilemma, albeit a petty one, if two or more countries do not get along.

Image Credit: Wikimedia/ German Federal Archive


Almost every Olympic game has had some sort of sociopolitical, economic, or cultural issue as a backdrop that is controversial among spectators. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Hitler used the games to promote German policies and portray nationalism, but efforts were ultimately crushed by African American gold medalist sprinter Jesse Owens. In another instance, during the 1972 Munich Olympics, Palestinian militants used the game as a platform to eliminate Israeli athletes, and, for 21 years, South Africa was banned from the games altogether as a way to punish them during the Apartheid era. But, in a global context, these games are meant to set aside the hard issues that separate nations. This is best portrayed by the very problematic figure Russian leader Vladimir Putin. During the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Putin said that Olympics were "intended to depoliticize the most pressing international issues and open additional ways to build bridges". Nonetheless, this isn't often the case; boycotting and the banning of countries from competing as a way to protest their political states can occur.

It was 2006 when North Korea performed for the last time in the winter Olympics under one flag alongside their South Korean counterparts. This was a big step in diplomacy since their boycott of the Olympic games held in South Korea in 1988. Since then, the two countries have not spoken and tensions have risen in the past few years with the rise in nuclear and ballistic missile productions, as well as the lingering effects of the Korean War. Now after more than two years without communication, sister countries North and South Korea have met and come up with an accord in which the DPRK attended the 2018 winter Olympics in Pyeongchang followed by military talks. It must be said, however, that sports can make as much tension as they quench. In his 1945 essay, The Sporting SpiritGeorge Orwell depicts sports competitions as "war minus the shooting" and a "tests of national virtue". Orwell goes on to describe that "the significant thing is not the behavior of the players but the attitude of the spectators; and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd national contests".

Image Credit: Flickr/Ministerio do Esporte


The United States and other countries, like Japan, have expressed their opposition towards North Korea's late acceptance into this year's Olympic games and South Korean's invitation to do a joint opening ceremony representing Korean unity. Many think it is North Korea buying time in their work to continue their nuclear missile programs. Yet, South Korea, in an effort to further thaw relations, has also had joint teams in various categories, such as in the hockey tournament. Even Kim Jong-Un's younger sister, Kim Yo-Jong, was in attendance and many watched her reaction anxiously as she was seated next to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Pence used the games as a moment of cowardice - he didn't attend a dinner with South Korean president Moon Jae-In in order to avoid Kim Yo-Jong and did not respect the North-South Korean entry, basically disrespecting the game's host country. He also brought  Fred Warmbier, the father of a college student who died during imprisonment from mistreatment in North Korea, in some "holier than thou" move. Priorly, Pence expressed his displeasure with the games stating that despite the current situation the U.S. they "will unveil the toughest and most aggressive round of economic sanctions on North Korea ever". In reality, Pence could have seized the Olympics as a diplomatic moment and could have made an effort in easing tensions even with the tiniest bit of small talk.

This year's Olympics have not repaired North-South Korean relations and have certainly not fixed anything with the Western world. On the other hand, it has shown a somewhat positive outlook of how different societies contrasting against the rising tensions between the North Korean leader and the Trump Administration can be civil with each other. The situation seems to get worse every day and has become another example of how sports brings together unexpected world players for a short instance that could lead to lasting change in their relationship.