International relations are often said to be all about sober realpolitik. So it may have come as a surprise that it was the power of sport that provided the opening for North and South Korea to consider dialogue rather than confrontation.
It was only a few months ago that political tensions had rapidly escalated – including missile launches, nuclear tests and bellicose rhetoric – and military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula looked likely. Thankfully, the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang helped ease the tensions.
When the leaders of North and South Korea meet this week, it will be only the third such summit since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Such moments of hope are rare in our increasingly polarised world.
The historic moment of the Olympic Winter Games was when the athletes from North and South Korea marched together as one team at the opening ceremony behind the Korean Unification Flag. This moment did not happen by chance. It was the result of a long process of negotiations and high-level government engagement that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began back in 2014, starting with a special programme to support North Korean athletes to qualify for the winter games.
But the political tensions on the Korean Peninsula escalated significantly during the second half of 2017. A North Korean nuclear test and missile launches, followed by countermeasures, including sanctions by the US and the United Nations, called into question whether the Olympic Winter Games on the Korean Peninsula could take place at all. The IOC intensified its diplomatic efforts with all sides, always maintaining strict political neutrality and emphasising the fundamental mission of the Olympic Games to bring all people together in peaceful competition.
During this time, the IOC kept the door open on the sporting side for the participation of North Korean athletes. We extended deadlines, assured them of special invitations and continued our support programme for the athletes.
On 20 January 2018, the IOC initiated the “Olympic Korean Peninsula Declaration” with both governments and the two National Olympic Committees. We agreed that North Korean athletes should participate in Pyeongchang, and that there should be the joint march behind one flag at the opening ceremony, as well as the formation of a unified women’s ice hockey team.
Cynics may decry these decisions as naive. But if such naivety can now lead to peace negotiations on 27 April, then I am happy to be given such a label. When Pierre de Coubertin revived the modern Olympic Games over 100 years ago, his idea that sport could bring people together in an age of nationalism was viewed by many as optimistic. But as the Olympic Games can still bring together rivals and enemies in 2018, his once-mocked concept continues to be compelling.
Having met both leaders from North and South Korea recently, I believe there are grounds for cautious optimism ahead of the talks on 27 April. In my meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he said that “the once frozen North-South relations greeted a dramatic thawing season with the Olympics as a momentum and it was totally attributable to the efforts of the IOC which offered an opportunity and paved a path for it”. He confirmed North Korea’s commitment to participating in future Olympic Games.
The South Korean leader, Moon Jae-in, also supported the participation of North Korea in Pyeongchang because he saw this as a chance to pause the spiral of confrontation and shift the momentum towards peace.
The Olympic Games have opened the door to a positive, long-term resolution. Politicians have now taken the first steps and are about to sit down together at the same table and talk. They enter these talks soon after enjoying the shared success of the Olympic experience and I am confident that they are determined to build on this momentum.
Thomas Bach is the president of the International Olympic Committee
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