Will the Winter Olympics Break the Ice Between the Two Koreas?

Dartmouth professors measure the impact of sports diplomacy.

The 2018 Winter Olympics seem to have defused tensions—at least temporarily—on the Korean Peninsula, but two Dartmouth professors caution that friendship between sports teams does not necessarily mirror international diplomacy.

In a breakthrough deal, North Korea has agreed to send 22 athletes, a cheering squad, a press corps, and a performance group to Pyeongchang, South Korea. Recent negotiations have also opened the door to future military-to-military talks, and the resumption of a hotline between the two nations. The two Koreas will march together under one flag in the opening ceremony, and unify their women’s hockey teams.

It will be the first time in eight years that North Korea has participated in the Winter Games. It boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and tried to sabotage the event by planting a bomb on a South Korean passenger plane in 1987.

The limited détente is a small step in the right direction, says Associate Professor of History Soyoung Suh, a native of South Korea. “I don’t want to overemphasize the positive aspects of these interactions,” she says. “But sports diplomacy has historically played a role in the history of North and South Korea.”

In her history classes about the region, Suh shows two films: The Game of Their Lives, about the North Korean national soccer team that defied odds to defeat Italy in the 1966 FIFA World Cup, and the 2013 Vice documentary Basketball Diplomacy, which follows NBA star Dennis Rodham and a trio of Harlem Globetrotters to Pyongyang, where Rodham met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Suh also tells students about the World Table Tennis championships in 1991, when North and South Korea competed as one women’s team and defeated China.

“Sports can create a moment—maybe not linked to any policy change, but a moment where people can imagine a different future,” says Suh.

She sees North Korea’s willingness to compete in Pyeongchang as a strategic political move at a time when sanctions are hurting the country’s economy. “I don’t support the regime, but from the North Korean point of view, they feel under threat. They have asserted their nuclear capability, and this is a moment for them to address economic aspects of their country. If they show up at the Olympics and make gestures in support of world peace, they hope to strengthen their international status,” says Suh. “But I am not optimistic that this will resolve any of the deeper problems at the root of nuclearization on the peninsula.”

South Korea is boosting its own international status by hosting the Olympics, says Suh, though she believes the 1988 Summer Games were more groundbreaking in establishing national identity for what was then an emerging democracy. “But I think the Winter Games will be good for Pyeongchang, which is a rural region.” she says. “It will boost tourism there.”

Some analysts see North Korea’s participation in the games as a way to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. Jennifer Lind, an associate professor of government, argues that conciliatory diplomacy between North and South Korea makes it difficult for the Trump administration to pursue its more hawkish policies. Lind does not see the Olympics overture as a pathway to peace in the region, in the long term. “No one should conclude from Olympic participation that we are reaching any solutions to the Korea problem,” she says. “There have been positive symbolic gestures in the past, but they have not resolved any serious issues on the peninsula.”   

Charlotte Albright can be reached at [email protected].