All to Play For: Sports Diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula

Main Image Credit North and South Korean athletes stand united at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games Opening Ceremony. Courtesy of

The two halves of the Korean peninsula have engaged in sports diplomacy before. But latest agreements between the leaders of the two countries have taken this diplomacy much further, with broader implications for the security of the region.

At last week’s inter-Korean summit in Pyongyang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in walked a deft line between the views of his key ally the United States, the demands of his counterpart North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and his own inclinations. The inter-Korean military agreement was balanced, including concessions from the North that broadly matched those from the South. Critically, it did not obviously include any measures that conflict with the Armistice Agreement, or anything that could be taken as a hint that South Korea was not aligned with the US.

The broader Pyongyang Declaration, on the other hand, did signify the degree to which the South is keen to amend the current panoply of UN-imposed sanctions, since much of what the South proposed to engage with in its relations with the North is simply not feasible without exemptions or broader sanctions relief. It is likely that this formed a substantial part of the discussions between President Moon and US President Donald Trump on the margins of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York this week, with Moon again acting in the role of an informal broker between Trump and Kim. The forthcoming summit meeting between Trump and Kim – which Trump would no doubt love to schedule before the US midterm elections in early November – will be decisive in that regard, as it will most likely focus more heavily on the nuclear file.

In the meantime, the details of the Pyongyang Declaration bear closer examination. One element of particular interest is the continuation of sports diplomacy that it promises, with the two parties agreeing to ‘actively participate together in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games and other international games’ as well as working to bid for the joint hosting of the 2032 Summer Olympic Games. The nearer-term part of this is likely to be the most eye-catching, as it offers the prospect of a steady stream of opportunities for North and South Koreans to compete together under the gaze of world media in coming years. And at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, the antipathy towards Japan by the peoples of South and North Korea will add an extra narrative dimension to this nascent cooperation.

This partly helps to build the people-to-people contacts which – given South Korea’s vastly greater ‘soft power’ capabilities – may help in the long term to change North Korean expectations of their own rulers far more than they will moderate Southern opinion towards the Kim dynasty. It will also result in more images of the kind we saw in Pyeongchang at the Winter Olympics earlier this year: athletes from the North and South taking selfies, groups of Koreans cheering under the white and blue flag of the unified peninsula, North and South Korean dignitaries supporting their athletes together, and so on. This is particularly helpful to Moon, whose approach to North Korea rests on shifting the narrative away from competitive security issues and towards constructive inter-Korean relations.

But it is the potential for North and South to pursue a bid to jointly host the 2032 Summer Olympics which is most interesting and offers some opportunities for serious progress that may have not been initially obvious. And this is something that affects the here-and-now, not the far future. The 2020, 2024 and 2028 Olympics have already been awarded to Tokyo, Paris and Los Angeles respectively, and initial manoeuvres in the 2032 bidding process are underway, with announcements of interest already made by Indonesia and India, amongst others.

With the final decision scheduled to be made in 2025 and immediately preceded by a two-year formal candidacy process, there is significant work to be done to prepare a bid package. But the International Olympic Committee has already welcomed the intention of the two to jointly bid for hosting rights, although Seoul and Pyongyang can hardly expect the other candidates to give them an easy ride.

Still, such developments matter, because the process of developing a joint bid – even before the formal candidature stage begins in 2023 – rests on identifying legacy and sustainability plans for the host cities, as much as it does on the grand sporting vision. This will require detailed and sustained interaction between North and South Korean officials, not just at the highest levels of government but also between those with operational and implementation responsibilities.

To give a sense of the level of detail that might be required, the questionnaire used to support the award of the 2024 and 2028 Olympic Games ran to 131 pages (the response of the London 2012 bid was 600 pages long), and asks questions about, for example, the alignment of the bid with regional urban and spatial planning, mobility, economic strategy, social issues and financing; it asks for detailed accommodation surveys, transport links, and details of telecommunications and energy services; and, perhaps most saliently, it asks for details on the political environment and stability of the host country, for detailed economic and financial analyses, and for information relating to the rule of law.

These are exactly the conversations that would be required to move forward with unification of the peninsula, an objective of the Moon administration. It is less clear that Kim and other powerful figures in North Korea are similarly motivated, but Pyongyang is to some extent reliant on continued inter-Korean rapprochement to create a security environment that practically eliminates the risk of US military action against its nuclear and missile programme, so it must show at least some commitment to this process. That being the case, to move this specific agenda point forward, North Korea will have to show greater transparency to Southern counterparts across a range of issues than it previously has. Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s previous ruler and the father of the current Supreme Leader, reportedly said during the 1990s that ‘we must not reveal ourselves to the outside, but conceal ourselves as if [our land] is inside the fog’;  if carried out convincingly, however, the Olympic bid could not entail a more different approach.

It remains to be seen whether this element of the agreement will be pursued with energy in Pyongyang, but on the South Korean side at least there is every sign that it will be. Even in advance of the summit meeting, South Korean Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Do Jong-hwan had indicated that the South would propose hosting events in Seoul and Pyongyang, and in the same media briefing noted the potential for further organisational diplomacy around North Korean inclusion in a pan-Asian FIFA World Cup bid for the 2030 competition. If this is so, then the developing sporting cooperation between North and South Korea will bear more watching off the field of play than on it.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Tom Plant

Director, Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

Proliferation and Nuclear Policy

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