Before two North Korean agents blew up a passenger plane bound for Seoul in the run-up to the 1988 Summer Olympics, officials from the country approached their longtime geopolitical adversary with a request to let them host some of the events on their side of the border.
Seoul had been awarded the Games at the outset of the decade, and South Korea wasn’t obliged to give the interjection any thought. Along with the International Olympic Committee, though, they decided to engage the North Koreans. At a two-day summit in Switzerland in June 1986, the IOC countered with an offer to hold two complete sports — table tennis and either archery or fencing — and a limited slate of other competitions in North Korea, including some soccer matches and a few cycling races that could start up north and end in Seoul.
The proposal was serious, but the last suggestion brought to mind a disagreeable image for the North Koreans: the world’s best cyclists peeling out of their country and speeding for South Korea as fast as they could.
“North Korea didn’t think that was funny,” said Donald Baker, a professor of Korean history at the University of British Columbia.
The Olympic movement, as the encounter shows, has not always succeeded in its attempts to quell tension between the Koreas. But after North and South Korean athletes marched and competed under one flag at Pyeongchang 2018, that trend may have shifted. Among the nuggets of news to emerge from the countries’ latest round of peace talks in Pyongyang last week was a statement announcing their intent to bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics together.
In the grand scheme of Korean diplomatic relations, an agreement to split those duties is less important than anything to do with the curtailing of the North’s nuclear regime. But Kim Jong Un will have to fulfill his promise to denuclearize North Korea if he has any hope of bringing the Games there. And, experts say, a joint bid has the potential to help foster unity on the Korean peninsula.
“When North Koreans go south and find themselves being cheered by the South Korean people, it reinforces the notion that they are one people and that they shouldn’t fight each other,” Baker said.
That’s what Olympic officials were hoping for when they met with North Korea between 1985 and 1988 to discuss the hermit kingdom’s participation in the Seoul Games.
Though Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the IOC at the time, initially feared any collapse in negotiations could jeopardize the success of the Games, the threat of a boycott from North Korea’s socialist allies or of an attack on the Games did not coax him or the South Koreans to yield to North Korea’s demands. The North initially wanted to host half of the events, and called for the Games to be renamed the “Korea Pyongyang Seoul Olympic Games.” But the IOC expressed over the course of numerous meetings its concern that athletes, officials and journalists wouldn’t be able to move freely between the two countries, and the committee was never willing to give them more than four competitions.
That wasn’t enough for North Korea, and when it became clear the Soviet Union and China would not back their demands with a boycott, South Korea lost interest in the negotiations.
The failed talks and subsequent success of the Seoul Games only served to humiliate and isolate Pyongyang, according to Sergey Radchenko, a professor of international relations at Cardiff University.
“Left to lick their wounds, practically abandoned by their allies, and unable to negotiate with South Korea on anything approaching equal terms, the North Koreans sought assurance of survival in strengthening the role of the military, and in pursuing the nuclear deterrent,” Radchenko wrote in an article for the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Now, South Korea and the IOC will have another chance at achieving diplomacy through sports — a prospect that could prove very appealing to Olympic officials.
“I would have to suspect that the entity most joyed, and almost overjoyed, at the news is the IOC,” said Michael Heine, the director of Western University’s International Centre for Olympic Studies.
The IOC will likely find a unified Korean bid enticing for two reasons, Heine said: South Korea already has Olympic-calibre infrastructure in place and the opportunity to contribute to the Korean peace process might be too tempting to pass up. North Korea’s human-rights record is dreadful, but the IOC has never shied from working with countries bound to attract scorn for political reasons, Heine said, pointing to Beijing 2008 and Sochi 2014 as chief examples.
“The IOC would make the argument that it always makes with regard to these circumstances: that the Games can perhaps work towards political change,” Heine said.
Still, the division of events and the unimpeded flow of people are two of the issues the Koreas will have to resolve before 2025, when the IOC is expected to choose a host. (Australia, Germany and Indonesia have all confirmed their intent to submit bids, as well.) As of now, North Korea doesn’t have the capacity to host the sporting world’s biggest spectacle, and remedying that shortcoming will take substantial investment from abroad.
North Korea is home to the world’s largest stadium — the 114,000-seat May Day Stadium, which opened months after the Seoul Olympics in 1989 — as well as other modern sports facilities, but to build the infrastructure required to transport and accommodate many thousands of visitors, its strapped economy will need an injection of foreign and private money from South Korea, the IOC and multinational sponsors. For now, economic sanctions levied by the United States and the United Nations Security Council deter companies from conducting business there.
South Korea’s central bank has estimated that North Korean’s gross national income is about US$32 billion, the Wall Street Journal wrote last week, more than 40 times smaller than South Korea’s. Hosting an Olympics routinely costs several billion dollars, as evidenced by the $51 billion Russia spent on Sochi 2014 and the comparatively modest $13-billion bill for the Pyeongchang Games last winter.
To Baker, North Korea’s suitability to host the Games will also depend on its willingness to “tone down” the hostile rhetoric it directs outward to the world. If that happens, he said, uniting with South Korea at the Olympics and other major sporting events could promote cohesion by challenging long-held stereotypes — namely, that North Koreans are “fanatical warmongers” and South Koreans are American puppets.
The Canadian Olympic Committee declined to comment about the possibility of a joint Korean bid, but Heine said he doesn’t think Canada or other countries would have reservations about sending delegations to North Korea.
“It would be an internationally well received story,” Heine said, “and every country sending a team could also make the argument they’re contributing to something unusually, potentially positive.”
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