Changing Tensions Between North Korea and South Korea

Historically, the Olympics have been a stage for political drama. In 1936, various nations debated boycotting Germany’s Games as an act of protest against the Nazi regime. The United States eventually decided to attend, and Jesse Owens’ dominance in the track and field events discredited the legitimacy of Hitler’s hateful ideology. In 1956, the People’s Republic of China boycotted the Olympics after the International Olympic Committee allowed Taiwan to partake in the Games. In these instances, and in so many others, countries used the Olympics to make political statements and express their respect—or lack thereof—for the host nation.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea are similarly shrouded by political tensions. Sixty-five years after the conclusion of the Korean war, the United States and South Korea are still pitted against North Korea and its dictatorial regime. Kim Jong Un has made clear over the last year that his government is developing the capability to strike the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and the nuclear tests they’ve carried out suggest that this is no empty talk. Likewise, President Trump has been aggressive in addressing the conflict with North Korea: “[They] best not make any more threats to the United States. . .They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

But if the beginning of the Games in Pyeongchang bring all these tensions to front, they also remind us of the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, which were marked by even greater drama and controversy. According to an article written by Tammy Kim for the New Yorker, “the 1988 Games took place in a time of social and political upheaval. . .Mass protests, especially on college campuses, had recently forced the military dictator, Chun Doo-Hwan, to acknowledge the torture of political prisoners and allow a direct Presidential election to go forward.” Angered by these democratic reforms and by the I.O.C.’s refusal to let them co-host the Games with South Korea, the North Korean government bombed a South Korean airline headed from Baghdad to Seoul. One hundred fifteen people were killed, and after denying any responsibility for the incident, North Korea boycotted the 1988 Games.

So, considering these tumultuous events that surrounded the Seoul Olympics, everything in Pyeongchang is going quite smoothly. During the opening ceremony, athletes from the joint Korean women’s hockey team carried the Olympic torch up a set of stairs to light the cauldron. Representatives from North Korea, South Korea, and the U.S. all sat in the same few rows to watch. Kim Jong Un’s sister extended an invitation to the South Korean President to have a summit in North Korea. People love the North Korean cheerleaders and their synchronized chants. The list of peaceful symbolism goes on and on.

While the escalation of tensions and the caustic dialogue between President Trump and Kim Jong Un may suggest that nothing has improved since Seoul, the Games tell a different story. Sport can be a source of hope and unity in so many different ways, and perhaps these two weeks will foster a climate of peace and diplomacy between North and South Korea that extends even beyond the Olympic Games.

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