At some point, sports crossed the frontier of mere competition between two or more teams. Nowadays, the national team or athlete represents the country, and the outcome of the game influences the people’s pride. Victory in a single game can stir national cohesiveness, whereas a slight mistake or loss can ignite discord and chaos. The 17th Incheon Asian Games (AG) will not be an exception, especially with North Korea’s intended participation.
The 17th Incheon AG is the fruit of years of effort. Since the 14th Busan AG, which was held in 2002, the government has strived with the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and other affiliated committees to open and establish a secure foundation for this year’s event. As a result, during the 16-day affair, as many as 13 thousand players and executives from 45 Asian countries will be gathering in Incheon, vying for priceless medals in 36 competitive sports.
▲ The fate in Korean Peninsula may depend on the Incheon AG. Provided by gbtimes.com
Behind the scenes of such competition in good faith lies the motto of this athletic competition: “Diversity Shines Here.” As the slogan connotes, the event will bring about various ripple effects. Not only will it be a chance to enhance national integration by informing the world of South Korea’s traditions, but also a stage to create peace in Northeast Asia. Above all, the Incheon AG has been receiving attention for its unique opportunity to reconcile with North Korea.
Up Until Inter-Korean Talks
On May 23, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), North Korea’s official news agency, announced its determination to send a North Korean sports team to the September event. Incheon immediately offered a warm welcome, citing their willingness to financially support the athletes, as well as their cheering squad, in terms of safety and accommodations. “North Korea’s participation will make this year’s AG a global festival and contribute to the reunification of the North and South,” said the sports commentator Ki Young No.
North Korea furthered this active stance by proposing working-level talks sometime in mid-July. Relationships on the Korean Peninsula appeared to gain momentum as the talks took place on July 17 in the House of Peace on the South Korean side of Panmunjom. Yet, the North Korean delegates put on the brakes by walking out of the meeting, raising the South Korean attitude as the cause for the breakdown in negotiations.
▲ North and South Korean delegates negotiating about the 17th Incheon AG during Inter-Korean talks held in Panmunjom. Provided by www.womennews.co.kr
During the talks, the North declared that it would dispatch 350 athletes and 350 cheerleaders to the Incheon AG. The delegates also proposed having the athletes flown in by plane, whereas the cheerleading squad would be transported by train. In response to their somewhat- unexpected suggestions, the South replied that it would follow international practices as well as the regulations of the event. The KNCA took this as “absurd assertions,” and that they will “fundamentally reexamine participation in the games if the South insists on such a defiant attitude.”
The North has been unilaterally shifting the blame, even accusing the South of trying to restrict the size of the North Korean flag to be displayed at the AG. Meanwhile, South Korea denied such a denunciation, saying they were only worried about the safety issues the big flags could cause to the North Korean cheerleaders. The talks were adjourned with such misunderstandings, ending without an agreement for another round.
Why All the Mismatch?
Despite the North’s threat of a boycott, Professor Nam Sung-Wook (Department of North Korea Studies and Director of North and South Economic Research Institute) said, “plans for the North’s participation will not change, and there will soon be another round of meetings.” In fact, on July 20, only three days after the rupture of negotiations, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un said his country’s participation in the upcoming AG will help improve cross-border relations. Kim even expressed his “great expectations” for their athletes.
“Taking part in the Incheon AG is after all to the North’s benefit in evading international isolation,” asserted Professor Nam. “North Korea is under adverse conditions: their relationships with China and the United States (U.S.) are precarious. There is nothing more effective than sports to show that they are a normal nation that pursues peace. In this sense, the extensive cheering squad with beautiful ladies is also a means to maximize their ‘pro-Pyongyang, pro-North Korean’ atmosphere.”
Nevertheless, the North has not ceased launching missiles. The missile launch on July 26 was only 11 kilometers from the Northern Limit Line (NLL), and each attack is increasingly coming closer to the border of the South. With the Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG) ahead, the North intimidated both South Korea and the U.S., proclaiming their volition to develop more missiles and rockets, a sign of “revenge” if the UFG is undertaken.
In contrast to the North’s unstable actions, Professor Nam seemed rather calm. “The UFG is an annual military exercise, and North Korea has always been against it. This time, as in previous years, there will be no such revenge,” he affirmed with composure. The North’s ambivalent strategy, a mixture of generosity and belligerence, can be interpreted as an intrinsic characteristic of the North Korean regime to draw international attention.
The 17th Incheon AG will undoubtedly shine in diversity. Such diversity will fuse under the passion and perseverance of the players and the cheers and ardent longing for victory. The whole world will be mesmerized and unified in this South Korean city, and North Korea will be part of it. Although it is undeniable that the North will be a special guest, the standards between sports and politics should not be adulterated. How the standards are followed will influence the fate of relations between the two Koreas.