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[Feature] Seoul pins hope on NK participation in PyeongChangBy Jung Min-kyung
Published : Oct. 25, 2017 - 17:07
Despite South Korean organizers’ determination to make the Winter Games a big hit, much of the event’s success may depend on the host country’s enigmatic neighbor, North Korea.
Taking place just a scant 80 kilometers away from the heavily fortified border with the communist regime, the PyeongChang Games have made some athletes wonder about their safety, amid all the news about the North’s unpredictable young dictator Kim Jong-un and his dangerous pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Officials in Seoul, however, rule out such concerns. Contrary to that, they pin high hopes on Kim’s interest in sports and that the North may send a delegation here.
“There have been some positive signs from the North (toward the games),” South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said Monday while visiting Greece for the torch lighting event, although he refused to disclose details.
International Olympic Committee Chairman Thomas Bach also said that he is trying “through various channels to have North Korea participate” in the games. He added that the IOC is studying “technical measures” to provide the North with an opportunity to take part in PyeongChang. The IOC said earlier that it would consider wild-card entries for North Korean athletes, on top of special provision of aid such as equipment, travel and accommodation.
Positive or ambiguous signs
Last month, North Korea secured its presence at the Winter Olympics set to run from Feb. 9-25 in the South’s sleepy resort town, with figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik grabbing one of the last Olympic spots in a competition in Germany.
On Oct. 13, the North submitted a document to the International Paralympic Committee, conveying its wish to participate in the upcoming winter’s multisport event for disabled athletes. The 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics are scheduled to take place from March 9-18.
But other than the two developments, the reclusive nation has been dealing with the situation with ambiguous responses.
On the application for the Paralympic Games, South Korea’s Minister of Culture Sports and Tourism Do Jong-hwan recently said the North has “not followed up with any official moves” to enter the competition.
An unnamed official with the IPC told Yonhap News Agency that he echoed Do’s view and said the North’s Paralympic committee sent the document via email on May 9.
Asked about the PyeongChang Olympics, Chang Ung, a North Korean delegate to the IOC, said, “I am quite sure that politics is one thing and Olympics is another thing,” adding that he did not see any “big problem.”
‘Waiting until the last minute’
Some of the most animated moments of inter-Korean relations were highlighted through gleaming sweat and joint teamwork in sports in the past.
It would be the “cherry on top” of the South Korean government’s agenda to make the event serve its goal as the “Peace Olympics,” if the North decides to join the first Winter Games here.
In July, President Moon Jae-in stressed that South Korea would keep the door open to the North “until the very last minute,” a month following his proposal to form a South-North unified team.
To lure North Korea to compete at the Winter Games, the government is preparing a United Nations resolution that will allow all conflicts surrounding North Korea to temporarily freeze from Feb. 9-25, during the Olympics and the ensuing Paralympics. It is scheduled to be voted on around November, the Foreign Ministry here said.
However, experts here are expressing skepticism over Seoul’s interpretation of several of the North’s sports-related moves as “signs of willingness.”
“North Korea may be simply weighing the current situation or trying to give its athletes chances (to compete and bring results),” said Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, while mentioning that the diplomatic circle here believes the North will maintain an obscure stance to the end.
“The current regime headed by its leader Kim Jong-un believes sports is very important in terms of economics and leisure, so it would be misleading to connect the North’s sports-related moves to PyeongChang,” he said.
Another expert also said Seoul should be cautious and watchful of North Korea’s true motives behind its every move.
“North Korea has shown signs with the construction of Marikryong Ski Resort, but (the construction) has more to do with Kim Jong-un’s goal of showcasing to his people and the global community that he could handle North Korea’s economy and future,” said Go Myong-hyun, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
In 2013, North Korea opened Masikryong Ski Resort in a province that shares a border with the South. In a telephone interview with Voice of America at the time, Chang Ung linked the ski resort to the PyeongChang Olympics.
“Such infrastructures designed and built at the time embody Kim’s experience in Europe,” added Go.
Above all, it would be difficult for the North to join the games as it refuses to discard its decadeslong nuclear ambition, both experts noted. North Korea’s sixth and largest nuclear test in September triggered the United Nations Security Council to impose strict sanctions on the rogue regime. It also sparked security concerns among participating nations due to the escalating military tension on the Korean Peninsula.
By Jung Min-kyung (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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