In January, for the first time in over two years, North and South Korea recommenced diplomatic talks in Panmunjom or ‘Truce village’. Lauded by some as being a show of ‘sports diplomacy’, officials from both countries agreed that North Korea would send a delegation of athletes, supporters and cheerleaders to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The negotiators also announced some joint participation between the two nations in the Games (who are officially still at war and have been since 1950).
This surprising detente in the wake of a tumultuous 2017 has led some commentators to consider whether sports diplomacy can and will diffuse nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula. For examples of such analysis, see here, here, here and here.
Unfortunately however, this unexpected show of (brief) unity has angered many South Korean residents. The tepid (at best) response of the South Korean people to joint participation with North Korea exemplifies the crucial role identity plays in understanding State behaviour. Given that sport is often intrinsically tied to the ‘Nation State’, it is unsurprising that identity politics have come to the fore.
Throughout 2017, the world seemed to be on the precipice of nuclear war. North Korea orchestrated multiple missile tests, possibly developed an intercontinental ballistic missile and conducted its sixth nuclear test. Regular insults were traded between US President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile in South Korea, the people elected a new President, Moon Jae-in, after political scandals rocked the previous government. It was therefore surprising when Kim Jong-un, in his New Years’ speech, proposed talks with South Korea to discuss the Winter Olympics. On January 9, unification ministers from both countries agreed that North Korea would send a delegation to the Games.
More significantly, several days later, negotiators announced that Korean athletes would march together under a unified flag at the opening ceremony and that the countries would field a joint women’s ice hockey team. Some have attributed this cooperative attitude to various motivations – including the success of the UN and US sanctions, to the spirit of the Olympic Truce, and/or to a devious ‘charm offensive’.
However, the most interesting result of this ‘sport diplomacy’ has been the lukewarm response to joint cooperation among the South Korean people, both from conservatives and young people alike. According to the pollster Realmeter, only four out of ten respondents were in favour of marching together under the unification flag. Additionally, a poll from the SBS-National Assembly Speaker’s office found that seven out of ten Koreans opposed the joint hockey team. Further, Moon’s approval rating fell to 67%, a four-month low. Some even accused the government of turning the Pyeongchang Olympics into the ‘Pyongyang’ Olympics.
So, how can we understand the reaction of the South Korean people? Or, how can we understand this State behaviour? The classic Realist answer, articulated by Kenneth Waltz, provides that anarchy is the fundamental organising principle of the international system. States are always inclined to conflict with each other, and must therefore rely on self-help through armed force to survive. But this does not explain the anger of the South Korean people. Here, a social theory of international politics that points to the importance of shared ideas and norms is most useful (see Alexander Wendt).
In the context of the Olympics, while ministers urge reunification, the push back from the South Korean people demonstrates that these countries now clearly have different identities. As one South Korean resident put it, "North and South Korea are separate nations". It is particularly significant that plans for joint participation have upset both older and younger generations. Andray Abrahamian, a research fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS, believes it “reflects a growing South Korean nationalism and identity, rather than a more simple anti-Communism in the older generation”.
As to why the announcement of joint participation in the Olympics has caused this outbreak of identity politics, sports are the perfect vehicle for illuminating identity issues. Athletes are often organised and segregated according to a single national identity, which manifests itself in a common flag, anthem and uniform. It is profoundly difficult for the people of a unified identity to accept that it join with another separate, unified identify to compete as one sporting team.
The problem with the Pyeongchang Olympics is not whether sport can bring people together. The problem is precisely that it is bringing people together as a single and unified national entity – and the citizens of South Korea do not seem to desire this. The implications of these identity struggles will extend far beyond the context of the Olympics as South Koreans, especially young people, seem to be making motions that they may not want reunification.
Even putting aside the lack of desire for reunification among South Korean people, it is doubtful whether reconciliation would actually be possible. The performances of the North and South Korean cheerleaders perfectly encapsulates this. North Korean cheerleaders wore full-length red jumpsuits and shouted encouragement such as ‘Unify the motherland!’ The South Koreans danced to pop music, decked in mini-skirts and knee-high boots.
These are profound identity differences. It is difficult to see how they would be reconciled under a one-state solution. And the more time passes, the more this challenge will increase in complexity and magnitude. Ultimately, the real obstacle to peace on the Korean Peninsula is not weapons, but identity.
Rebekkah Markey-Towler is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.