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Gangwon governor bets again on Olympics for inter-Korean rapprochement

Gangwon Province Gov. Choi Moon-soon speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald on the sidelines of the PyeongChang Peace Forum on Tuesday, in Gangwon Province. (Penta Press)
Gangwon Province Gov. Choi Moon-soon speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald on the sidelines of the PyeongChang Peace Forum on Tuesday, in Gangwon Province. (Penta Press)

PYEONGCHANG, Gangwon Province — Four years ago this week, the PyeongChang Winter Olympics came to a grand finale. During the Games, South and North Korea enjoyed a moment of peace, with athletes from either side of the Demilitarized Zone marching together during the opening and closing ceremony. It was here in Gangwon Province that the two Koreas also fielded a unified team for the first time in Olympics history, with their joint women’s hockey team.

Preceded by a year of nuclear and missile tests by the communist regime, the hard-won Olympic truce eventually led to detente on the divided peninsula, with three historic inter-Korean summits and the Singapore summit, which marked the first-ever meeting between leaders of the US and North Korea.

However, the peace process has reached an impasse since, and the North has recently ramped up tensions with a barrage of missile launches to start this year. But Choi Moon-soon, governor of the only province spanning the two Koreas, still sees the possibility of peace with Pyongyang -- but only with the right conditions on the right occasion.

That timing is 2024, when Gangwon Province hosts the Winter Youth Olympics in PyeongChang and Gangneung, where the 2018 Games took place. Choi hopes to jointly host the international sporting event with North Korea.

“I believe the 2024 Winter Youth Olympics will become a very important point for relations with the North to move forward,” Choi told The Korea Herald in an interview held on the sidelines of the PyeongChang Peace Forum on Tuesday. “Co-hosting the Olympics will become the most powerful lever to maintain peace, and further prevent war.” 

After Gangwon Province was declared the venue for the Youth Olympics in 2020, the South Korean government sent a proposal to Pyongyang via various channels to hold the quadrennial event together. But the reclusive regime has yet to respond, he said.

“We still have time. Plus, there are many political variables to factor in, including the forthcoming administration change and also the gubernatorial election,” said Choi. “I think the North is taking these circumstances into account.”

The North’s much-touted Masikryong Ski Resort, just outside of Wonsan, Kangwon Province, could be a potential venue for the skiing events in 2024. South Korean officials had visited the ski resort in 2018 and concluded that the facility was competent to host international games, said Choi. The bisected province is spelled differently referring to the North’s side.

The governor also talked about Seoul’s proposal to declare a formal end to the 1950-53 Korean War, which he sees as linked to jointly hosting the Olympics.

“The two Koreas are technically still at war (nearly) 70 years since the Korean War ended, which means the war could recur at any time,” he said. “The end-of-war declaration, and subsequent peace treaty that includes a nonaggression pledge, is needed in order to establish permanent peace on the peninsula.”

Stressing that it would be contradictory to host the Olympics together when the two Koreas are technically still at war, Choi believes the 2024 Games will create much-needed impetus for the end-of-war declaration and stalled diplomacy with Pyongyang.

“If we co-host the Olympics, athletes and international delegates will have to stay and travel between the two Koreas,” the governor said. “It would be an oxymoron to be in a state of war.”

His vision is reflected in this year’s PyeongChang Peace Forum. Under the theme of “The Declaration to End the Korean War and Beyond,” the annual forum, which began a year after the PyeongChang Games, now marks its fourth year. 

“I understand the progress toward the end-of-war declaration hasn’t panned out as anticipated,” said Choi. “Through the forum, we would like to discuss how to create that right opportunity for the declaration. And I believe the 2024 Olympics could be an important moment.”

He believes in starting with nonpolitical areas, such as sports, to tackle the political problem of the peninsula situation.

“With the collapse of the Hanoi summit, we have witnessed inter-Korean relations and US-North Korea ties crumble all at once,” said Choi. “Recovering from that aftermath has been very difficult, and the ramifications continue to this day.”

Choi believes jumping right into politics at this moment is tough. Instead, Seoul needs to work gradually toward recovery, bringing nonpolitical areas to the forefront.

The governor, who has only a few months left in his third and final term, called for the decentralization of power to give more authority to local governments, especially in areas of inter-Korean relations.

“The central government shouldn’t monopolize inter-Korean relations. There is a role that local governments could play, and for civil organizations to take part in,” said Choi. “Exchanges between the two Koreas need to happen at all levels, including at the grassroots. And based on these exchanges, I believe we could resolve political problems.”

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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