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When Koreans do sports diplomacy

A unified Korean women's ice hockey team is the latest attempt to use sports diplomacy on the Korean peninsula. Photo: Republic of Korea/Flickr

Sport has united Korea in the past. But only for short periods of time and without securing lasting détente between North and South Korea. Asger Røjle Christensen describes previous and current attempts of sports diplomacy on the Korean peninsula.

The expression ’ping-pong diplomacy’ stems from when American table tennis players visited China in the beginning of the 1970s as a precautious forerunner of the thaw between the United States and China founded by President Nixon’s famous visit in China in 1972.

The latest sports diplomatic exercises relating to the upcoming Winter Games on the Korean peninsula are a case study on how sport can be a lever for diplomatic attempts.

In fact, one of recent sports history’s most remarkable examples of this type of subtle sports political approaches actually involved North and South Korea.

Never has ping-pong diplomacy had bigger success and had more emotional appeal globally than the sentimental day in the Makuhari exhibition hall in Chiba east of Tokyo in the spring of 1991, when a unified team from North and South Korea won the world championships in table tennis for teams. There was not a dry eye in the room.

The current developments surrounding the surprising participation of North Korea in next week’s Pyoengchang Games and the many goodwill demonstrations planned on this occasion bring to mind the many previous times within the past decades that not just table tennis but other sports as well have played an important part in phases of the political development in which both the northern and the southern part of the peninsula have wanted to reach out a conciliatory hand.

When athletes from both halves of the Korean peninsula march together in the Opening ceremony in a few days, it will be bearing the unification flag picturing the peninsula in light blue on a white background, which was conceived on the occasion of the table tennis championships in 1971. Like then, the ancient folk song, ‘the Arirang’, will sound instead of the two countries’ national anthems.

Since the ceasefire in 1953, ending the war actions in the Korean War, only relatively few armed collisions have taken place between North and South Korea. But there has been no actual peace either. A peace treaty has never been reached.

In 1991, when Li Bun-hui and Yu Sun-bok from North Korea, and Hyun Jung-hwa and Hong Cha-ok from South Korea won gold in Japan causing joint celebration from both countries, many Koreans – and observers from the rest of the world – believed that this was a new triumph for the ping-pong diplomacy and that a ceasefire and possibly even a Korean reunion had gotten a step closer.

The triumph demonstrated that sport can lead to solidarity across hostile political boundaries but, at the same time, it also proved that this solidarity is fragile if politicians do not succeed in seizing the moment and establishing an actual dialogue and finalising the political agreements necessary to make the results of ping-pong diplomacy last.

”Time stopped on 29 April 1991,” said one of the team coaches, South Korean Lee Yu-sung, to a Korean newspaper. “We reached a small reunion that lasted 46 days.”

46 days was how long the unified Korean team got to train together at the training camp in Japan preparing for the world championships. Prior to that, 22 negotiation rounds between the two countries’ table tennis federations had taken place over five months, resulting in the signing of a ‘ping-pong treaty’ on 21 February 1991.

The team of athletes, coaches and officials included 28 from North and 28 from South. North Korea supplied the team leader and was also tasked with drawing up the unification flag and uniforms. South Korea had proven very ready to negotiate in order to close the deal. South Korea designed the sportswear and rewrote the old folk song to be used instead of the national anthems.

For 46 days, the Koreans ”lived together as one, trained together, slept in the same room and ate all our meals together. We shared the same food — and our feelings,” as North Korean sports star Li Bun-hui said to American news agency AP many years later about her relationship with her South Korean rival and partner, Hyun Jung-hwa.

Table tennis is great for TV and many of the riveting matches from the Makuhari halls were broadcasted live on Japanese TV.

China had easily won the eight previous championships and only because the two Koreas had combined forces, they were capable of challenging this dominance. When Yu Sun-bok, who on short notice replaced Li Bun-hui who suffered from hepatitis, after a dramatic comeback won the decisive set in the decisive match 21-19 over the Chinese star player Gao Jun, cheers exploded in the Makuhari hall, in Japan and Korea and many other locations around the world. The cheers were a symphony of over- and undertones and were about much more than sports.

Unified Korean football team suffers from political protests
An attempt to follow up on the table tennis success came a few months later, in June 1991, when a unified Korean team qualified for the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship. Once again, carefull negotiations went ahead. The coach was North Korean, the team leader South Korean. Flag and anthem from the table tennis tournament were reused.

18 young men, nine from North and nine from South, were to be selected. Before the team left for the cup, trial matches took place in Seoul and Pyongyang between two mixed teams, one red team and one white.

The author of this article was present at the trial match in Seoul. Never before or since has a trial match for a national youth squad had 20,000 cheering spectators in an Olympic stadium.

The ambiance among the spectators was good. Many were sentimental, elderly people flied little blue unification flags. They had turned up anticipating a unique historical moment. They did not know much about football and continuously had to have the rules explained by the person sitting next to them. They were there to support the young men on the field in opening up for what they optimistically hoped could be a new chapter in the political history of Korea.

The spectators cheered with equal passion for both teams and clapped their hands no matter who excelled on the pitch.

Individually the players did well. Especially players from the North moved fast and succeeded in breaking through the defense several times, but the teamwork was lacking.

The North Korean team had arrived in Seoul with a four-day delay in a protest against South Korean police killing a demonstrating student a few weeks before. There had not been enough time for the players to get to know each other and to learn to play well together.

A few weeks later in Portugal, the unified team, who qualified from the group play, lost 1-5 to Brazil in the quarter final. It was no new table tennis success.

Since then North and South Korea have made joint Opening marches at three Olympic Games in the years between 2000 and 2006 and a number of other Korean ping-pong diplomacy attempts have been made, but never as ambitious as in 1991. In other periods, the political situation on the peninsula has made sports diplomacy hopeless and already at the table tennis championships two years after the joint success in Chiba, the triumphant team’s players once again competed as representatives of two different countries.

It has never been easy. During the 46 days of joint preparation there were several crises including North Korean leaders threatening to cancel everything and go home due to “disciplinary problems”.

South Korean player Hyun Jung-hwa was unsatisfied to begin with. She would have preferred to play the match with her regular partner at the time and was, in her own words, “too young to understand how symbolic it was”. The North Korean favorite, Li Bun-hui felt the same way.

There were clashes, fights and deep crises during the tense training camp but gradually, the two young women overcame their skepticism and built a professional partnership and personal friendship. A process that in 2012 was portrayed in a sentimental South Korean movie with well-known actors in the leading parts, playing in international theatres.

”When we started talking about our boyfriends back home I developed great sympathy for her,” said real-life Hyun Jung-hwa to Japanese TV station NHK in an interview about the movie.

After the triumph, the plan was to let the unified team tour the main streets of both Korean capitals to be cheered by the people, but the plan was cancelled due to the killing of the student protesting the government in Seoul prior to the win.   

Later that year, trouble broke when the youth football team played a trial match in Seoul. On several occasions, the North Korean team leaders tried to gain access to the hospital where the killed student was. They wanted to “show respect to the deceased patriot”, and when this was denied, a solemn memorial ceremony was staged at the hotel. A provocation right in the face of the South Korean hosts.

That type of provocations have marred all Korean sports diplomatic attempts so far.

Sometimes political provocations have been made knowingly, at other times incidents have been caused by misunderstandings because the involved persons have not really known the reality on the other side of the militarised border. They are so close, they speak the same language, there are so many broken family ties and yet, after six decades of mutual isolation, the two countries are so far apart.

In 2012, then South Korean prime minister, conservative Lee Myung-bak, who in the wake of the table tennis movie put a stop to the production company’s planned reunion of the two main characters of the gold medal drama in 1991 and the movie. At that point in time, Myung-bak did not find there was a basis for dialogue with North Korea, and in South Korea, applying for permission from authorities is mandatory before any contact with anyone from North Korea.

New attempts of sports diplomacy is a balancing act
When representatives from North and South Korea a few weeks ago agreed to have a unified team participating at the Pyeongchang Games, it prompted protests in the streets of Seoul where conservative protesters set fire to photos of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

This incident immediately had North Korea demanding an apology from South Korea’s government and a clamp down on critical press coverage from South Korea regarding the preparatory North Korean visits. There will undoubtedly be more of these quarrels during the games and the outcome of the sports diplomacy is dependent on how flexible the two parties act in this regard and on how much they individually feel that the other part is taking advantage of the situation for their own benefit. From the North Korean side there is an apparent uneasiness with the relatively free press coverage in South Korea and it will come as no surprise if this leads to smaller tiffs in the weeks to come.

When the table tennis team triumphed in 1991, there was evidently an enormous support behind the unified team. But at that time, a quarter of a century ago, an entire generation more than exists today had lived through the Korean War and experienced the painful separation of the country. Back then, many – on both sides of the border - had personal memories about family members from whom they had been separated.

This simple demographic reason is one explanation why there are fewer supporters of the unified Olympic team today. South Korean Prime Minister Moon Jae-in has large support with the younger generations in the country who voted him to power in May last year. But, generally, South Koreans support the president’s diplomatic dialogue-based approach towards North Korea because they want peace and freedom to live their lives in certainty that tomorrow will not bring another war. Because they support his liberal reform politics in other areas. Not because they have the same strong personal wish to reunite the countries that their grandparents, and to some extend their parents, had.

That is why this new round of sports diplomacy is a balancing act between North and South Korea. Generally, there is support for North Korean participation from both South Korea and abroad. But overstepping is an obvious risk.  

For example, with the blessing of the IOC, the two countries’ national Olympic committees have decided to present a unified women’s ice hockey team. Some of the players from South Korea, who have taken part in the preparations so far, have now had to step down to make room for North Korean players. This time around the timespan to establish the necessary team spirit matching the one achieved in 1991 is far shorter than the 46 days and therefore many people, perhaps especially among the younger generations, find this unfair.  

The Prime Minister did not exactly make the decision more popular by stating that the ice hockey team was a good place to experiment  since the team was ‘out of the medal range, anyway’.

Achievements reached with sports diplomacy are by definition symbolic and fragile. Political and military alliances and power balances on the Korean peninsula have not changed. The nuclear powers and deployed weapons that have taken headlines for months are still there.

However, ping-pong diplomacy could make a change of sentiment among the populations as it happened in 1991 and this sentiment does matter. The public reaction will be significant for whether the current Olympic reconciliation will turn out another short break in a tense conflict or whether it will leave a lasting effect.

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