North Korea’s Sport Diplomacy at the 2018 Winter Olympics

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Political analysts and foreign policy strategists often define soft power in the context of international diplomacy as the ability of a state to employ non-coercive methods to get other states to acquiesce to its requests. In this regard, international sporting events can often be a powerful platform to project a country’s culture, values and image on the world stage. They can also be a tool to demonstrate politically symbolic gestures. During the height of the Cold War, depending on the allegiance of the host nation, boycotting the Olympic Games became a common practice. The United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, while the Soviet Union returned the favour by not turning up for the subsequent Games held in Los Angeles in 1984. At the same time, diplomacy through sport can also be an effective tool for uniting nations and elevating a country’s reputation. In this vein, North Korea’s diplomatic efforts before and during the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeonchang, South Korea, reinforce sport’s unique ability to serve as a catalyst to alter a country’s image.

In recent years, relations between Pyongyang and Seoul have been at their lowest point, owing to North Korea’s continual violation of UN sanctions regarding the development and testing of nuclear weapons. However, in early January following a high-level meeting between the officials of the two states, North Korea confirmed its participation in the Games, to the surprise of many. Following this announcement, South Korean President Moon Jae-in confirmed that the South Korea-US military drills, annually scheduled for February–March, would be postponed until after the Games. Additionally, for the first time since the end of the Korean War, a member of the ruling political dynasty in North Korea visited its southern neighbour, when Kim Yo-jong, sister to Kim Jong-un, met President Moon Jae-in and attended the opening ceremony of the Games. It was also agreed that for the opening ceremony, both nations would march together as a ‘unified’ Korea for symbolic purposes. They also decided to field a unified women’s ice hockey team. All these developments happening in the space of a month has left most South Koreans confused and Japan and the US scrambling to understand Seoul’s motivation to be cooperative with its neighbour. While the exact benefits to South Korea of accommodating the North to this extent are unclear, there is no doubt that diplomatically and symbolically this is a massive triumph for Pyongyang.

The Kim Jong-un regime has been heavily isolated in recent years and many analysts believe that the effect of severe financial sanctions is finally being felt in the hermit state. Pyongyang recognises that a soft power projection of a new image is the key to gaining gradual acceptance in the community of nations. International sporting events like the Olympics afford the country the opportunity to foster people-people interactions and help promote its image. The whole idea of the two Korean athlete contingents joining hands and walking together during the opening ceremony with the world media’s attention on them is a hugely symbolic move. As Douglas Paul, a former US diplomat remarked after watching North Korea in the opening ceremony, “It’s tough not to get caught up in the emotions of an Olympic event.” Symbolic demonstrations like that of a ‘unified’ Korea as well as the presence of a senior figure of the North Korean political establishment for the opening ceremony help Pyongyang score many diplomatic points. After the opening ceremony, Kim Sung-han, Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister in 2012-13, opined that North Korea already appears to be winning the ‘diplomatic gold’. During the opening ceremony, the North Korean contingent of athletes and delegates enjoyed global spotlight, while US Vice President Mike Pence cut a lonely and isolated figure. Scott Gates and Havard Nygard, when talking about sport diplomacy, offered that the ability of sport to build a platform for dialogue is one of the key mechanisms available to countries looking to exert their soft power. Sports provide avenues to facilitate cultural exchanges and people-people interactions, which are vital first steps to normalise political relations between countries. Since the international community has shunned the Pyongyang regime from effectively participating in any other global community, sporting events like the Olympics offer it the only path for soft power projection. Judging by North Korea’s recent efforts and successes in the Winter Olympics, it is also easily its most effective path.