The fact that North Korea has agreed to send its athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea has raised hopes that the feuding neighbours could use the opportunity to calm frayed nerves in the volatile region, possibly leading to permanent peace.
Romantics may disagree, but sport’s capacity to help nations tide over decades-old political strife is often exaggerated. Past examples involve India and Pakistan who have off and on broken political ice with a resumption of cricketing and cultural exchanges only to be pushed back to square over the contentious issues of Kashmir and “terrorism”.
There was great hope in 2004 when Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf went out of the way to calm tensions on the borders with a push for peace; the “Friendship” cricket series being a great way to kick off proceedings.
The camaraderie and goodwill lasted almost four years allowing people to go beyond the political narrative and experience the best both nations had to offer in terms of sports, hospitality and culture before the countries went back to the familiar routine of accusations and counter-accusations, triggered by a terror attack on Mumbai in 2009.
The rise of the right-wing BJP under Narendra Modi, who has used the Pakistan bogey in his election speeches with great effect, has further complicated the issue. Peaceniks on both sides are being drowned out by the cacophony of hardliners who seem to be winning the battle, at least for now.
The Korean problem is somewhat similar in the sense that both nations share a common history, not to mention deep-rooted family ties. Occasional strictly-monitored visits by people on both sides have led to dramatic scenes with long-separated relatives unable to control their emotions.
Chances are the world could get to witness such scenes again during the Winter Olympics next month as the Koreas began talks yesterday on performances by Pyongyang’s state artistic troupes in Pyeongchang.
The two sides agreed an art troupe would be part of the delegation. Four officials from each country started a working-level meeting to thrash out details on the northern side of the border village of Panmunjom yesterday, Seoul’s unification ministry said.
The North’s delegates include Kwon Hyok-Bong, a senior culture ministry official, as well as Hyon Song-Wol, the leader of the North’s famed all-female Moranbong music band.
The 10-strong band, established in 2012 with members supposedly chosen by leader Kim Jong-un, is known for its Western-style, synthesiser-driven music and sophisticated fashion style rare in the isolated nation, although most of their songs praise the regime.
Seoul should negotiate carefully to avoid the embarrassment of having the North’s propaganda being promoted at the Olympics, said Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank.
“If the Moranbong band members, all formally military officers, come to the South in military uniforms, it could cause discomfort among many South Koreans,” Cheong said.
The two Koreas are set to hold talks with the International Olympics Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Saturday over the number of the North’s athletes. South Korea has also proposed a joint march for the opening ceremony and a unified women’s ice hockey team, reports quoted a minister as saying last week.
Things are indeed looking bright, at least for the moment. It’s now up to the politicians to seize the moment and come up with an out-of-the-box solution.
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