Inter-Korea sports diplomacy beset by challenges, past and present

NEW YORK, Oct. 16 (UPI) — South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent proposal to co-host the 2032 Summer Olympics with North Korea should be viewed with skepticism in light of Pyongyang’s behavior since the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, a U.S. analyst said.

Mitchell Lerner, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, told UPI Moon’s push for an inter-Korea Olympics in 2032 — a potential event that would lead to what Moon described as an “era of prosperity” — may resonate with his supporters but ultimately doesn’t guarantee political breakthroughs.

“It’s really easy for contemporary policymakers to make promises about the future that benefit them politically but don’t leave them in a situation where they have to deliver,” Lerner said by phone.

Lerner also said the 2018 Winter Olympics, despite its symbolism of peace between the two Koreas, did not yield the desired results on diplomacy. U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un may have met three times, but genuine progress, such as those that came at the heels of U.S.-China ping pong diplomacy in the 1970s have not followed, the analyst said.

“Sports diplomacy only works when there is sufficient political will,” he said. “Without other forces, other actors pushing to reinforce the aims, it tends not to go very far.

“The inter-Korea soccer match [on Tuesday], where North Korea would not let media or tourists in — that’s a better picture of where we are right now.”

A look back at Pyeongchang

The analyst’s observations about sports on the peninsula come at a time when witnesses and participants of the 2018 Winter Games are revisiting the event — an Olympics of twists, tears and surprises.

Seth Berkman, a Korean American journalist who was covering the South Korean women’s ice hockey team for The New York Times, told UPI he witnessed the reactions of the players to the news that their team had been selected to include North Korean athletes.

“The players were not very happy of this unified team happening, of being political puppets in a way,” Berkman said.

Berkman, who profiles the team in his new book A Team of Their Own: How an International Sisterhood Made Olympic History, said one of the players said she felt “resentful of the Korean government,” and “didn’t want to represent the country,” because of the way the team was being ordered to accommodate new players.

The South Korean athletes may have been taken by surprise — but the players eventually learned to work together despite obvious challenges, including a lack of intimacy between the two Koreas.

Danelle Im, 26, a team member and a Canadian national, told UPI she was surprised, and definitely shocked, to learn about the changes. The South Korean athletes adapted, she said.

“I think once we met the [North Korean] team, things changed,” Im said. “We were women, who were athletes, who were playing this game. This brought us together. We just tried to make the most of it.”

Berkman, who continues to keep in touch with the athletes, said the South Korean team was already diverse — their ages ranging from 15 to 32, and representing different socioeconomic backgrounds and Korean immigrant communities overseas.

“Five or six players came from single-parent households,” he said. “Because of the stigma toward divorce [in South Korea], they kind of had a connection.”

Berkman said he was unable to make direct contact with the North Korean athletes who made up the inter-Korea hockey team.

The players’ handlers were always present at the games, with at least four or five managers watching the athletes at all times.

“It was challenging,” Berkman said. “The North Koreans arrived only two weeks before the Olympics.”

Lerner, who works as director of the Institute for Korean Studies at OSU, said the decision to pick the women’s ice hockey team was a smart move, because of the sport’s significance at the Winter Games.

“South Korea brilliantly chose a sport that has real popularity, resonance,” Lerner said. “Winning a medal in ice hockey is the biggest team accomplishment.

“Yet they chose the women’s team, rather than the men’s team, which is more high profile. There was definitely a gender element” in the decision, he said.

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