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September 12, 2013

Koreas Try Mending Ties with Sports Diplomacy

by Daniel Schearf

A weightlifting competition in North Korea’s capital this week is raising hopes that sports diplomacy can help reclusive North Korea open up. Already, the event represents a breakthrough because of North Korea’s willingness to play the South Korean national anthem, and hoist its flag, if the South Korean team wins.

South Korea's weightlifters on September 10 for the first time went to North Korea.

The team of 22 athletes and 19 sports officials is competing in the Asian Cup and Interclub Weightlifting Championship hosted by Pyongyang.

North Korea invited the team in August and South Korea's Unification Ministry last week approved the trip provided Pyongyang maintains international standards if one of their athletes win.

That means hoisting the South Korean flag if they place in the top three and playing the South Korean national anthem if they win gold.

Officially and publicly recognizing the symbols of South Korean sovereignty would be a first in communist North Korea.

Kim Ki-dong is vice president of South Korea's Weightlifting Federation. He says North Korea's unexpected flexibility on the flag and anthem could be a sign that “sports diplomacy” is beginning to pay off.

He says he thinks it is similar to when the United States and China began ping-pong diplomacy that helped open up China. He says he hopes the competition can be a seed of peace for exchange between the two Koreas.

Ping-pong exchanges with the U.S. in the 1970s paved the way for President Richard Nixon's historic visit to communist China and, later, normalized relations.

Few are expecting similar dramatic results given the deep divisions that persist between the two Koreas. The two technically remain at war and Pyongyang still periodically threatens to attack the South.

Although playing Seoul’s national anthem in the North could be a symbolic breakthrough, Kim says the South Korea team must still win against a formidable opponent.

He predicts that at least the national flag will be hoisted. The weightlifting of North Korea, he says, is internationally strong. They won three gold medals in the Olympics in London. He says they should learn, if there is something to learn, from North Korea.

In July South Korea warmly hosted North Korea's female footballers (soccer) for the East Asian Cup tournament. And, unlike Pyongyang, Seoul, since at least 2005, has allowed displaying of the North Korean flag and playing of its anthem at sports events.

Professor Lim Eul-chul at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies of Kyungnam University says sports exchanges can be separated from politics.

He says sports exchanges obviously foster peace and also enhance cooperation and exchanges between private entities. This will play a role to foster an opening, he says, and can be an important tool for North Korea to open up to the international community.

International sports have helped bring the two Koreas together in the past. They participated together in opening ceremonies of some past Olympics, including under a unified flag at the 2000 Sydney games.

But more recently, political tensions kept their Olympic teams separated.

​​​Former National Basketball Association player Dennis Rodman on Monday announced plans for an exhibition game in Pyongyang in January between American and North Korean basketball players.

The eccentric athlete befriended North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un, a basketball fan, during his first trip to the country in February to film a documentary.

He said the North Korean leader also invited him to help him write a book and to coach their Olympic basketball team.

Seoul Bureau producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report