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[Lee Min-gyu] Seoul-Pyongyang Unification Olympics as sports diplomacy

Seoul was selected recently, along with Pyongyang, as a candidate city for the joint bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics. This may well be the first step toward realizing a “Unification Olympics” of peace and harmony.

If the Seoul-Pyongyang Olympics become a reality, they will be the second Olympics held in Seoul, 44 years after the first. They will also be the first official Olympic Games to be hosted by two countries.

Even more significant, they would be a sign of substantial progress in bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula and establishing political trust between the two Koreas.

It is true that there are myriad thorny issues to resolve before a rosy picture can be painted. Concerns are growing over the potential financial burden of hosting the Olympics. While the construction of infrastructure in North Korea may lead to controversy over the South “throwing money at the North,” the more fundamental problem is whether the denuclearization negotiations will make genuine progress and lead to greater trust between North Korea and the US. Unless the US and the United Nations Security Council decide to lift the sanctions on North Korea, the Seoul-Pyongyang Olympics are unlikely to come to fruition.

Nevertheless, the attempt to co-host the Seoul-Pyongyang Olympics shows an ongoing commitment to peace on the Korean Peninsula. In this respect, it is paramount to maintain the goal of hosting the Unification Olympics. The emphasis should be more on unification than on the Olympics -- that is, both sides should focus on the process of preparing for and hosting the games, which could serve as the ember that sparks inter-Korean peace and harmony.

For this to happen, preparations for the Seoul-Pyongyang Olympics should be designed to open a channel of regular dialogue not only between the two Koreas but between the North and the rest of the world.

This is not to say that social and cultural exchanges invariably lead to trust in the realm of politics and security. Under the current conditions, where the continuation of denuclearization talks cannot be guaranteed, it is of great significance to maintain a low-level channel of communication that focuses more on process than outcome.

It should be remembered that the success of “ping-pong diplomacy” between the US and China in 1971 was based on 136 ambassador-level talks between the two countries over the course of 15 years (1955-1970). What is notable is that after the bilateral agreement on the repatriation of nationals in September 1955, the talks continued for 15 years in spite of the fact that no tangible outcome occurred.

Sports diplomacy should also provide opportunities to dissolve the distrust that lingers between North Korea and the international community. When a country hosts the Olympic Games, it means that it agrees to comply with the norms, principles and decision-making processes set out by the international community as represented by the International Olympic Committee.

What this means for the Seoul-Pyongyang Olympics is that the endeavor to co-host the games should lead to a change in mutual perceptions in the short term, the creation of an “in-group identity” in the mid- to long term, and the establishment of a psychological foundation that ultimately motivates the North to abandon nuclear weapons voluntarily.

Based on technological capabilities, it was once estimated that up to 35 countries would have nuclear weapons by the late 1980s. But today, fewer than 10 have them -- proof that cognition and judgment were decisive factors. The sense of stability and homogeneity derived from membership in the international community tends to influence nations to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons.

From the perspective of international politics, one must not place undue trust in sports diplomacy but can only hope for its benefits to unfold. It may yield positive results, but it could also backfire. The Seoul-Pyongyang Olympics stand for the noble cause of peace and harmony, but current relations are fragile and the burden of having to run a “three-legged race” is not insignificant.

That said, South Korea has always participated in the Olympic Games with aspirations for peace on the Korean Peninsula. The endeavor to co-host the Seoul-Pyongyang Olympics is part of the process of bringing nuclear-free peace to the Korean Peninsula. It is now time to practice sports diplomacy once again.

Lee Min-gyu
Lee Min-gyu is an associate research fellow at the Seoul Institute. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.