South Korea Leader Hopes for Unified Olympic Team With the North

June 26, 2017

By CHOE SANG-HUN

 

SEOUL, South Korea — President Moon Jae-in of South Korea proposed on Saturday that his country and North Korea form a unified team to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics, to be held in the city of Pyeongchang in the South.

Mr. Moon made the overture during a speech at the opening ceremony of a World Taekwondo championship in the city of Muju in South Korea. The North does not compete in the championship but sent a demonstration team, led by Jang Woong, its delegate to the International Olympic Committee. It was the first sports exchange since Mr. Moon took office.

The South Korean president, who advocates dialogue and reconciliation with North Korea, recalled past instances where the two Koreas fielded joint teams in international sports competitions and their national teams marched together in Olympic Games.

“I want to see the same glory again,” he said, asking Mr. Jang for cooperation. “I want to feel the same Olympic sensation.”

If they form a unified team for the Pyeongchang Olympics, it would be a major milestone in inter-Korean relations. South Korean officials hope such a feat would help create a thaw on the Korean Peninsula after years of tensions spurred by the North’s nuclear and missile tests.

North Korea has yet to announce whether it wants to attend the Pyeongchang Olympics. The North and South remain bitter political and sports rivals.

When the South hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics, in Seoul, the North boycotted it. But strong ethnic nationalism also compels people in one Korea to cheer for the other Korea when it competes with any other country, especially Japan, which once ruled the Korean Peninsula as a colony.

Efforts by both sides to seek reconciliation through sports exchanges have sometimes led to breakthroughs. In 1991, the two Koreas fielded a joint team to an international table-tennis championship and international youth soccer tournament.

In 2000, the year the two countries held their historic first summit meeting, their delegations marched together at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. They again marched together at the 2004 Athens Olympics, using the single name “Korea” and carrying a “Korea is one” flag. But they competed separately in 2000 and 2004.

The potential implications of millions of Koreans cheering together for their unified team could be huge — a prospect that could further advance Mr. Moon’s policy of promoting dialogue and exchanges with the North.

But past efforts to form a unified Olympic team have all faltered over politically delicate details such as whether a joint team should have an equal number of players from each side, which side should choose the head coach and where the team would train.

Such efforts for unity in sports also provide a testing ground for overcoming obstacles to reunification. For instance, after seven decades of division, athletes from the two Koreas use sharply different sports vocabulary. In South Korea, broadcasts of soccer matches are interspersed with English terms like “goal post,” “penalty kick” and “midfield.” In the North, where state linguists abhor foreign terminology, athletes use Korean translations not readily understandable to South Korean players.

The two Koreas have even developed different versions of taekwondo, their traditional martial art. The North is promoting the rival International Taekwondo Federation. The South’s version became an Olympic medal sport in 2000.

On Saturday, Mr. Moon welcomed the North Korean taekwondo team to the South, which hopes to send its demonstration team to an International Taekwondo Federation competition to be held in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in September.

He said the two taekwondo federations’ cooperation should inspire the two Koreas to work for a joint Olympic team. “Sports are a powerful tool to demolish walls and separation,” he said.

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