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Cold War Politics in the 1988 Summer Olympics

After years of escalating tensions between North and South Korea, the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang is being perceived as a breather in the two countries’ feud. North Korea has agreed to form a joint women’s ice hockey team with South Korea. And on Friday, the athletes from both nations marched under a single flag, a symbol of thawed relations in a reality that more so resembles the peak of the Cold War.

While the United States and the Soviet Union had focused on wooing emerging and nonaligned states to their respective camps, the two Koreas spent the Cold War trying to get noticed by the international community. Despite their opposing ideologies, for the first three decades after the Korean War, the north and the south were relatively tied for poorest economy and most authoritarian politics. And their efforts at recognition were similarly neck and neck—in that each struggled to establish formal relations with the other’s ideological camp.

But in 1981, Seoul was chosen to host the 1988 Summer Olympics. At the time, the olympics were dragged into the tit–for–tat public image contest between the U.S.–led capitalist world and the U.S.S.R.–led communist one. In response to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the United States initiated a boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow; the Soviet Union retaliated likewise with the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. In the wake of the 1984 games, North Korea found an opportunity in this contest to steal some of the prestige associated with the olympics from South Korea.

In 1985, North Korea proposed sharing the games, with Pyongyang hosting half the events. Its officials spun the offer as a demonstration of the north’s desire for reunification, but the International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch insisted that the games could not be split. He and the IOC would spend the year attempting to negotiate a compromise with North Korean officials, who often made implicit and explicit threats to the games and South Korea to secure their demands. Nevertheless, in 1986, North Korea eventually lowered their demands, asking for eight sports in January, then six in March.

The retreat was undoubtedly driven by sobering correspondence with China and the Soviet Union, who had no interest in boycotting another olympics. Deng Xiaoping made it clear to Kim Il–sung in November 1985 that China wasn’t going to boycott the olympics, as it was hoping to host the games in 2000. And Gorbachev had grown out of his contest with the U.S., knowing that further stubbornness would hurt the U.S.S.R.’s foreign policy goals, particularly the Soviet “peace offensive”—a funding campaign of anti–war movements within NATO countries. The lack of support from both of North Korea’s biggest allies deprived the country of its biggest trump card—the threat of a boycott by the socialist world. Thus, North Korea lost any real influence on the shape of the Olympic Games.

And South Korea was well–aware of the change in the balance of power. When Samaranch interviewed President Chun Doo–hwan in April 19, 1986 about offering events to North Korea, he responded, “Without the support of these two countries, North Korea can do absolutely nothing and if it were to do something, that would be an act of self-destruction. If they want a fight, they would have it, but it would be suicide on their part.” Chun’s analysis proved to be spot–on, and when Rae Tae Woo took over following the June Democracy Movement—the end of military rule in South Korea—he maintained that the Olympic Games would stay in Seoul.

Out of options and bargaining chips, the north went through with its threats and bombed Korean Air Flight 858 on Nov. 29, 1987, killing 115. Though the act shocked the world, North Korea ultimately acquiesced, and the 1988 Summer Olympics proceeded without incident.

South Korea emerged the clear victor in this episode of the Cold War. With its economy prospering throughout the 80s, its government transitioning to democracy, and the games going smoothly in Seoul, the south garnered the global recognition it had sought for all these years.

With its newfound wealth and prestige, South Korea became a partner for socialist countries in need of money. A $625 million loan to Hungary led to the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries on Feb. 1, 1989. The next year, the Soviet Union did likewise, even agreeing to suspend military aid and cooperation with North Korea for a desperately needed economic care package. In August 1992, China established diplomatic relations too.

But the very same victory created the current status quo on the peninsula. Though North Korea lost the public image contest and a key ally, it had another stratagem to keep itself relevant in the post–Cold War world—nuclear weapons.

It remains to be seen whether the 1988 Summer Olympics proved a pyrrhic victory or not. It’s certain, however, that today’s reality closely resembles that of 1988. Because for all the talk of reunification, North Korea only ever extends one hand forward when it has its other wrapped around a deterrent.


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