IOC suspension of N. Korea latest wrinkle in inter-Korean sports cooperation

September 9, 2021

 A recent decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to suspend North Korea until the end of 2022 for skipping the Tokyo Olympics has added another wrinkle to inter-Korean sports cooperation and exchanges, which have been dormant for the past couple of years.

North Korea announced in early April it would not take part in the Tokyo Games, citing the need to protect its athletes from the raging coronavirus pandemic. The decision had been reached in late March.

And it has cost North Korea a chance to compete at the next Winter Olympics, scheduled for February 2022 in Beijing. The IOC announced Wednesday its Executive Board made the decision to suspend North Korea’s national Olympic committee (NOC), to deny the country any assistance from the IOC during the suspension and also to forfeit financial support that had been due to be provided to the country but had been withheld due to international sanctions.

The Executive Board has the right to “reconsider the duration of the suspension at its discretion,” the IOC added.

The IOC did leave the door open for individual North Korean athletes to participate in the Beijing Olympics, saying it will make “an appropriate decision in due course” should such athletes qualify. Such a step is not unprecedented. Russian athletes have competed in the recent Olympics as individuals representing the Russian Olympic Committee, while their country was suspended for rampant, state-sponsored doping. Russia’s national flag and anthem were banned during medal ceremonies.

But having only North Korean athletes in Beijing, without the presence of Olympic leaders from Pyongyang, won’t mean much to South Korea and its hopes of reviving inter-Korean sports cooperation.

Seoul’s dreams of co-hosting the 2032 Summer Olympics with Pyongyang ended in July, when Australia’s Brisbane was named the host city. South Korea will now shift its focus to co-staging the 2024 Winter Youth Olympics with North Korea in Gangwon Province, home of the Winter Olympics proper three years ago.

South Korean officials have said at every chance they would try to bring North Korea on board as a co-host. North Korea hasn’t responded to that overture.

It may seem like a lifetime ago, because the two Koreas have barely had any type of exchange of late, but they are only three years removed from engaging in sports cooperation at a level not seen before or since — and that happened in none other than Gangwon Province.

At the 2018 Winter Olympics, hosted by the province’s resort town of PyeongChang, North Korea sent athletes to compete south of the border and also assembled a joint team with South Korea in women’s hockey. It was the first unified Korean team in any sport in Olympic history.

Building on that momentum, the Koreas fielded joint teams in women’s basketball and rowing at the Asian Games later in 2018 in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia. The joint dragon boat racing team captured a gold medal.

With positive vibes still fresh on their minds, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, following their summit talks in September 2018, declared their intention to work together to co-host the 2032 Summer Olympics.

In February 2019, representatives from the two Koreas traveled to the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, to formally express their interest to IOC President Thomas Bach. Bach said he welcomed the joint Korean bid and hailed it as a “historic initiative.”

Also during that trip, the two Koreas agreed to assemble joint teams in four sports at the Tokyo Olympics.

But things have stalled since, with no visible progress in the intervening months amid the usual ebbs and flows in inter-Korean relations.

The joint Korean bid for the 2032 Olympics was dealt a major blow in February, when the IOC picked Brisbane as its preferred candidate and its partner for “a targeted dialogue.”

In the past, the IOC named Olympic host cities seven years in advance, following a two-year bidding race that often proved expensive for candidate cities. Under a reformed procedure designed to ensure more transparency and efficiency, the IOC established the Future Host Commission, which screens potential host cities and makes a recommendation to the Executive Board for a preferred candidate.

The IOC then works with the prospective host to develop its chances of holding a successful Olympic Games and brings the bid forward for an up-or-down vote by IOC members.

Seoul officials sent a proposal to the IOC on co-hosting the 2032 competition with Pyongyang, but it was a desperate move that didn’t take into account how the new selection process works.

Co-hosting the Olympics would have been the culmination of inter-Korean sports cooperation. No Olympic Games, winter or summer, have been shared by two countries.

And now North Korea has fallen out of favor at the IOC, which noted North Korea was the only country not to participate in the Tokyo Olympics.

“The IOC provided reassurances for the holding of safe Games and offered constructive proposals to find an appropriate and tailor-made solution until the very last minute (including the provision of vaccines), which were systematically rejected by the PRK NOC,” the IOC said in a statement, referring to the country by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. “Throughout the process, the PRK NOC was given a fair opportunity to be heard and received very clear warnings about the consequences of its position and the fact that any violation of the Olympic Charter would ultimately expose the PRK NOC to the measures and sanctions provided in the Olympic Charter.”