A Seed For Korean Peace
North and South Korea agreed to march under a united flag at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics opening ceremonies and compete together on their first joint Olympic team is could be said as a diplomatic breakthrough that suggests a thaw in tensions between the two nations.
North and South Korea’s athletes are to be marched under the Korean Unification flag- blue against a white backdrop- is a rare, but not unprecedented. The two countries first displayed the flag at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships and also at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy.
The two countries also agreed to the display of unity after high-level talks at Panmunjom- the highly sensitive border area of North and South Korea. The fact that North Korea has agreed to send its athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea has raised hopes that the feuding neighbours could use the opportunity to calm frayed nerves in the volatile region, possibly leading to permanent peace.
The meeting may have given the impression that tensions between Seoul and Pyongyang are easing, at least temporarily, but no progress was made on the issue of North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles — the biggest source of regional tension.
Koreas are the only divided nations in the world yet. Many efforts have been done to bring the peace in the Korean Peninsula. But, however, the dream has not be realised so far.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is considered as a liberal leader, has been pushing to improve strained ties and restore stalled cooperation projects with North Korea since his inauguration in May last year.
Romantics may disagree, but sport’s capacity to help nations tide over decades-old political strife is often exaggerated. Past examples involve India and Pakistan who have off and on broken political ice with a resumption of cricketing and cultural exchanges only to be pushed back to square over the contentious issues of Kashmir and “terrorism”.
There was great hope in 2004 when Indian prime minister AtalBehari Vajpayee and Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf went out of the way to calm tensions on the borders with a push for peace; the “Friendship” cricket series being a great way to kick off proceedings.
The camaraderie and goodwill lasted almost four years allowing people to go beyond the political narrative and experience the best both nations had to offer in terms of sports, hospitality and culture before the countries went back to the familiar routine of accusations and counter-accusations, triggered by a terror attack on Mumbai in 2009.
The rise of the right-wing BJP under NarendraModi, who has used the Pakistan bogey in his election speeches with great effect, has further complicated the issue. Peaceniks on both sides are being drowned out by the cacophony of hardliners who seem to be winning the battle, at least for now. The Korean problem is somewhat similar in the sense that both nations share a common history, not to mention deep-rooted family ties. Occasional strictly-monitored visits by people on both sides have led to dramatic scenes with long-separated relatives unable to control their emotions. Chances are the world could get to witness such scenes again during the Winter Olympics next month as the North Korea agreed to send its athlete in PyeongChang. However, Seoul should negotiate carefully to avoid the embarrassment of having the North’s propaganda being promoted at the Olympics.
Last year North Korean leader Kim Jong Un shocked the world with the unexpected speed of his nuclear missile development. Even though accepting the South Korean President Moon’s request to resume high level dialogue between the two countries North Korea met their southern counterparts on January 9 for the first such talks in two years. The outcome was an agreement to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics being hosted by South Korea next month as well as to hold military-to-military talks.
South Korea’s President Moon may be more open to renewed connection with the North than many of his predecessors. It was also the first time that North was positive about talks with the Moon’s administration.
The Panmunjom Channel that had been closed since 23 months after Pyongyang decided to sever all communication between the two Koreas in February 2016 after the South Korea shut down the jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Complex following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test and a subsequent long-range rocket launch. Thus, Pyongyang might want to loosen the encircling net against it by improving its relations with Seoul and re-launching joint operations in the Kaesong industrial park.
It’s also possible that deep rooted talks between the two Koreas could pave the way for a resumption of negotiations that could serve to de-escalate tensions in Korean Peninsula that has still been divided the one nation-Korea into two since nearly seven decades.
Any dialogue between the Koreas is seen as a positive step. Perhaps the best argument for allowing South Korea some room for diplomatic manoeuvre is the fact that it’s 51.44 million citizens is the most at risk from North Korea. Thus, cashing an opportunity, Seoul must not throw cold water on the efforts to denuclearise the recalcitrant state.
Since longtime, Korean Peninsula remains a very difficult problem for the region and for the world too. Thus, it is a need of hour that the standoff may end and that the last vestige of the cold war legacy will be dismantled to setting up nuclear-free peaceful Korean Peninsula.
Participation in the Olympics would help ease the North’s isolation. And Pyongyang may hope Seoul could resume desperately needed economic aid at some point under the President Moon who was once an advocate of former president Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” of reconciliation with the North.
As both sides also agreed to hold further high-level talks, improved inter-Korean ties and a series of steps agreed could pave the way for discussion of a “fundamental resolution” of the nuclear issue in the future that will lead to denuclearisation of the North. Optimistically, two Koreas can do little themselves about denuclearisation “without having the others on board,”
Both the Koreas initiated sports diplomacy in 1957 in an effort to form a unified team for the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Culture and sports diplomacy between them since then has followed the ups and downs of their Cold War-era relations. Things are indeed looking bright, at least for the moment. It’s now up to the politicians to seize the moment and come up with an out-of-the-box solution.