North Korean Sports Diplomacy

M.L. Sondhi

The Hindustan Times, May 17, 1984

India which hosted the 9th Asian Games in 1982 cannot but feel that North Korea is taking the wrong tack in trying to secure political payoffs by the assumptions for forming a joint unified sports team of North and south Koreas for the Los Angeles Olympics. Both empirical evidence and logical thinking suggest that the vital interests of the developing countries of the Third World are deeply hurt when sharp tensions generate disarray and get translated into crude forms of outside intervention. Just as the arms race devours resources which could be channelled into investment for development, the mishandling of conflict situations for propagandist purposes prevents the development of rational options for promoting a broad spectrum of social, economic and cultural cooperation in the Third World. Indian public opinion has consistently favoured an international sports milieu which would always generate a consensus on positive and creative initiatives to support the vital interests of sportsmen and to eliminate social tensions in both the domestic and external environments. Indian leadership in international sports affairs has consistently favoured a pluralistic order which would be beneficial for all nations and India has often played the silent role of a mediator and peacemaker when some other countries openly abandoned the Olympic spirit and indulged in pernicious confrontations.

Considerable Sympathy

There is considerable sympathy in Indian official and non-official circles for the hazards which South Korea faces in dealing with some of the compulsively confrontationist ethos of North Korean sports diplomacy. If the spirit of the New Delhi Asian Games is to be carried forward to the 1988 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympic Games to be hosted by South Korea, Seoul will have to guard against the failure of its northern neighbour to avoid deviant behaviour. The human and social values which India cherishes were deeply offended when the Rangoon outrage took place and the Indian Prime Minister and other leaders strongly condemned political terrorism on both legal and moral grounds. The risk of sabotage and blackmail which South Korea faces is directly influenced by the belief system which North Korean leadership has developed, but India’s stance of non-alignment often prevents it from calling a spade a spade. India is however favourably disposed to the new foreign policy directions of South-South Cooperation which Seoul has promoted and in turn has offered new perceptions of cultural and economic cooperation. A question arises as to why Pyongyang has failed to alter its perceptions and continues to define the situation with the dominant yardstick of political coercion. Indian observations suggest that some elitist regimes even though they have joined the non-aligned movement have not yet adjusted themselves to the new priorities of the international community.

In the transitional period the consensual perceptions are opposed by the various outmoded devices by which violence is used for political ends. Thus as early as February 1, 1982 South Korea proposed a 20-point pilot South-North exchange project which created a very favourable impression in India. These included the opening of a highway between the two capitals, reunion of families, free press coverage of either side and arms control measures. There were specifically proposals to participate in international games under joint auspices and also to create sports facilities inside the Demilitarized Zone. Thus the South Korean Government offered accommodation on a number of points, including international sports, through a general policy of conciliation.

A sober examination of the positions advanced by Seoul would have led Pyongyang to a concrete plan for starting a dialogue. Unfortunately the reaction of the North Korean government was one of rage at the thought that any agreement would act as a catalyst to create a new model of democratic and non-violent relations between the two parts of the Korean nation. Seoul was left in the lurch by Pyongyang on the concrete dimensions for developing a joint team for international sports events including the Los Angeles Olympics which was then three years away in the future.

Functional approach

In any assessment of North South Korean relations nothing underscores the impression of Pyongyang’s fear of close contacts with the South as the half hearted response to the offer of a genuine sports dialogue from Seoul. By taking a functional approach both the Governments would develop a common regional point of view and also reinforce the shared sense of the Korean people belonging to a single nation.

Pyongyang’s verbal peace overtures have not been matched by actual policy moves. The Rangoon Bombing incident has actively contributed to raising new obstacles to improved relations between North and South Korea for Pyongyang’s public statements showed that the North is not interested in dampening the flames of political turbulence and its ruling elite can only consolidate its power through secrecy, distrust and political terror. In the aftermath of the Rangoon tragedy, Seoul has naturally to draw proper inference and take necessary precautions to safeguard its legitimate interests. A variety of arguments for critical evaluation of North Korea’s signals are grounded in the destabilisation campaign which North Korea launches from time to time and which prevents concrete results emerging from an inter-Korean dialogue.

Heart of the Issue

As Chairperson of the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) India believes that the heart of the issue for normalisation of political relations between governments professing different ideologies is whether co-operative relations can be developed which would help towards co-existence of different political systems. It would make a major contribution to an optimistic future for the Korean peninsula if North Korea were to channel its energy into exploring the potential of south-South cooperation through an imaginative and decisive leadership and give up the adventurism which is implicit in its programme of communising the South Korean political system by the use of covert and overt force. The threat to peace in the Korean peninsula is controllable if bilateral talks can develop a framework for peaceful settlement of disputes while eschewing military confrontation.

For a short time, especially in 1972, it appeared as if a qualitative leap forward had occurred in the intra-Korean relations and both states would carry out actions in confrormity with the jont statement of July 4, 1972 which recognised the potential of North and south Korea to achieve reunification without external interference. That there was considerable resistance against such a policy in Pyongyang became unfortunately clear when a year later North Korea refused to pursue the realistic content of the 1972 joint statement and again entered the arena of narrow internecine politics.

India has been trying to remove the causes of tension which have resulted in the Iraq-Iran war, and it has declared its willingness to help in the process of reconciliation in other crisis-5ridden situations. In India’s view an acceptable solution of the Korean problem cannot be achieved merely through empty gestures. A détente policy whether at the global level or at the regional level must be based on the recognition of mutual interest. A direct inter-Korean dialogue would not only be welcomed by India, but New delhi would assuredly provide a non-aligned forum for reunification talks without external interference.

While rejecting the South Korean proposal for a second inter-Korean sports meeting last month at Panmanjom, the North Koreans presented a rather distorted picture of the true state of affairs. The idea of having a single team will indeed be fruitless unless the entire enterprise demonstrates the importance of fair play and mutual trust. Asian countries would do well to establish a strong record for the participants in Asian Games on firm adherence to the highest principles of international sports. North Korea appears to hold the Clausewitzian view that Olympics are a continuation of politics by an admixture of other means. If the tradition of the New Delhi 1982 Asiad is to be strengthened, Asian countries must take a firm stand against the politicisation of international sports.

Objective Standard

Indian opinion would be pleased if North Korea were to give up its hawkish attitude and resume the inter-Korean Sports Meeting by adhering to objectives standards for reconciling the different perspectives over a unified team, and they would do well to take into account the lessons of the New Delhi Asiad. According to Pyongyang, their delegation staged a walk-out after the South Koreans referred to the Rangoon bombing incident and asked for guarantees for the safety of South Korean sportsmen. Although this is clearly intended to impress the outside world of North Korea’s statue, yet on this issue Pyongyang is fighting a losing battle. South Korea has established an impressive tradition of supporting the concept of a unified team since as early as January 1963, and in fact guiding principles were evolved during meetings held by the sports officials of the two sides in Switzerland. South Korea’s attitude was not marked by excessive expectations when the two sides met on April 9, 1984. All that South Korea did was to dilemma when it presented its seven-point plan.

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