South Korean athletes will march under a unified flag with their North Korean counterparts at their home Olympics next month, in an indication of a thawing in diplomatic relations on the peninsula. The countries will also field a joint women’s ice hockey team amid rising tensions between North Korea and the USA.
In a significant and symbolic move, proposals have been made for the North Korean Olympic delegation to walk across the heavily patrolled demilitarised zone between the two countries. This has been complicated by pressure on the South Korean authorities to maintain the international sanctions on their neighbours, and prevent any blacklisted high level government officials from entering.
The two Koreas previously marched together at Olympic ceremonies a number of times in the 2000s, and have sent joint teams to two international sports events. In recent years however, tensions have risen due to North Korea’s increased missile tests, especially following supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s accession to power in 2011.
The move has been hit with criticism by some South Koreans, who view it as the South acceding to the wishes of the North to undermine sanctions. South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings have dropped to a four-month low, as both conservatives and young people have reacted negatively to the news.
The president favours the peaceful reunification of Korea, although his attempts to further develop South-North relations have been undermined by an increasingly aggressive US. Other diplomatic attempts to de-escalate the situation have been put forward by Moon, including another round of family reunions. Twice previously the two countries have cooperated to allow members of families separated for over 60 years since the Korean War to reunite for several days. This has apparently been snubbed by North Korea, but efforts such as these are intended to strengthen peace and discourage further nuclear proliferation.
The potential threat to South Korea from a total breakdown in relations with North Korea is huge – the capital Seoul with almost 10 million residents is only 35 miles from the border, easily in reach of North Korea’s missiles. Although South Korea has strong ties to the USA, President Trump’s provocative rhetoric has pushed back efforts to normalise the situation on the peninsula and left Moon effectively walking a diplomatic tightrope. Cooperation, even on a relatively superficial level such as the sporting world, may be the only way to peacefully resolve the dispute.
[Louise Wylie – @womanpendulum]