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INTERNATIONAL > East Asia & Pacific

North and South Korea see Olympics as occasion to move

Minegishi Hiroshi, senior staff writer


TOKYO — The Japanese women’s softball team beat the U.S. in the final to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics on July 27. On the same day, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to improve North-South relations, the two countries announced.


It was also revealed that the two leaders had exchanged personal letters since April, when North Korea had said it would not participate in the Summer Games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.


North Korea has turned to a policy of dialogue with South Korea during the Olympics in a drive to get out of dire straits, and the South has responded.


Similar moves were seen during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea in February 2018. At that time, Kim sent his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, and other aides to South Korea. The North had been under increasing siege both militarily and economically after China came in step with U.S.-led economic sanctions against the country following its nuclear test the previous year.


After the Olympics, North Korea was able to have a summit with South Korea in April 2018 and a summit with the U.S., the first in history, in June.


During his visit to the U.S. this May, Moon might have conveyed Kim’s message to President Joe Biden.


The Olympics, where athletes compete with the backing of their country or region, have been used as a tool of politics and diplomacy. “The Olympics contain all the elements of politics and international politics, including nationalism, racial issues, divided nations, terrorism and the enhancement of national prestige,” Keio University professor Masaru Ikei wrote in his book “Orimpikku no Seijigaku” (“The Politics of the Olympics”).


In particular, the Korean Peninsula, the world’s sole remaining Cold War zone, has seen various dramas of joy and sorrow stemming from the separation of North and South.


North Korea boycotted the previous Tokyo Olympics in 1964, just before they opened.


Ahead of those Summer Olympics, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (now World Athletics) disqualified key North Korean athletes, including female ace runner Shin Geum Dan, from the Tokyo Games because they had taken part in the 1962 Asian Games in Indonesia, a country that had violated the Olympic Charter — which prohibits discrimination of any kind, including that based on politics — by not inviting Taiwan and Israel.


In protest, North Korea canceled its participation in the Olympics, although its athletes were already in Tokyo. Shin, holder of the world record in the women’s 800 meters, had been expected to win a gold medal in the Tokyo Games.


Her story does not end there. Just before the North Korean athletes left Japan, the day before the opening of the Olympics, Shin met a man in a room in Tokyo — her father, who had been separated from her 14 years earlier amid the turbulence of the Korean War and had been living in South Korea.


She could not show him how she could run, and the meeting lasted only about 15 minutes (some said just five). The news of the meeting was spread around the world by South Korean media, casting light on divided nations.


In the race to host the 1988 Summer Olympics, Japan’s Nagoya and South Korea’s Seoul competed to the last. The Japanese side was sure of victory until just before the vote was announced in September 1981 at an International Olympic Committee meeting in Germany.


The biggest reason for their conviction was that because Korea was a divided nation, it was uncertain whether socialist countries that had not recognized South Korea, such as the Soviet Union and China, would send athletes to an Olympics in South Korea.


However, it is said that South Korea turned being a divided nation into an advantage, contending before the IOC that the Olympic flame, a symbol of peace, should be lit in their country. Seoul won by a wide margin. The South is also said to have appealed to IOC members’ feelings over the fact that Japan, which once had ruled the Korean Peninsula, was a rival in the competition for host city.


A front-page Nikkei story on Oct. 1, 1981, described the scene at the meeting: “The moment IOC President [Juan Antonio] Samaranch announced that the Summer Games will be held in Seoul, all the members of the Nagoya bidding group looked as though they could not believe it. Casting glances at the Japanese representatives who dropped their shoulders in disappointment, the South Korean representatives who succeeded against all odds in being awarded the host city exploded with joy.”


North Korea later caused the midair explosion of a Korean Air passenger plane the year before the Seoul Olympics to obstruct the Games by scaring nations away.


For the current Tokyo Olympics, Moon’s visit to Japan and the first Japan-South Korea summit in a year and seven months became the biggest focus of Olympic diplomacy. However, the two governments were unable to close the gap between them, and the South Korean side decided to back away at the last minute.


At the Olympic Village, the South Korean delegation incurred criticism by putting up banners reading, “I still have the support of 50 million Korean people,” playing on a famous utterance by 16th-century naval commander Adm. Yi Sun-sin, “I still have 12 battleships left,” before he managed a crucial victory against an invading Japanese fleet led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Many Koreans in both North and South think Japan’s colonial rule was the root cause of the nation’s division.


The Winter Olympics in Beijing in February 2022 is also unlikely to be free from politics. As regards the Korean Peninsula, is it not possible that Chinese President Xi Jinping will mediate a reunion between Kim and Moon, who considers North-South reconciliation the top priority of his government?


The Winter Games will come just before South Korea’s presidential election, on March 9, which will choose a successor to Moon. Since North Korea would not want to see the return of a conservative government in South Korea, there is speculation about a North-South summit.


North Korea recently restored communication lines with South Korea that had been cut for just over a year, even as the Moon government potentially becomes incapable of pursuing its policies effectively in its final year. The restoration of the hotlines could extend the life of the Moon government and help boost liberal presidential candidates.


However, the international political situation has changed from the time of the Pyeongchang Olympics. Biden has emphasized international cooperation to tackle the North Korean issue and seems wary of early direct talks with Kim. In South Korea, Moon will leave the presidency in 10 months. It seems that Pyongyang has become more anxious.


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