Evans Revere on the 2018 Olympics
By: Martin Rogers
Don't expect Winter Olympics to provide a turning point for North, South Korea
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Kim Jong Il, the former tyrannical leader of North Korea, once shot five holes-in-one in a single round, bowled a 300 game on his first trip to the lanes, and communicated with his country’s soccer coach via invisible telephone.
On another note, sports and politics don’t mix, supposedly.
And … if you’ll believe all of the above, you’ll believe anything.
As these Winter Olympics prove beyond doubt, sports and politics do mix, albeit not neatly or smoothly. They are more intertwined than ever before, which is partly why North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Un, was set to stage a giant military parade in Pyongyang on Thursday, deliberately timed to take place a day before the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics.
“Does it even need to be said that this is an obvious act of intimidation?” Korean political expert Robert E. Kelly told nationalinterest.org. The parade is held every year in April, but was this year switched to Feb. 8. “The North Korean response is exactly as unhelpful and belligerent as you would expect,” Kelly added.
This might all be a bit confusing for the sports fan who doesn’t follow politics with intense closeness. Weren’t the Olympics supposed to be playing a role in thawing the historic tensions between the Koreas, with a joint team to participate in women’s hockey, a troop of the North’s cheerleaders having flown in, and combined march on opening night?
Not so fast.
“I certainly understand the desire to try to translate North Korea’s participation in the Games into something bigger in terms of reconciliation,” Evans Revere, a former senior American diplomat and expert in Korean peninsula politics told USA TODAY Sports. “We have been down this road before in terms of North-South engagement and sports diplomacy.
“To be frank the North Koreans come to this with an agenda that has a lot more to do with peninsula politics and military dynamics than it has to do with the Olympics.”
Already, North Korea has used their apparent move towards unity to impose a series of demands that the South can’t possibly adhere to – such as the repatriation of refugees who fled North Korea and subsequently became South Korean citizens.
When such things are considered, sports might seem trivial compared to the seriousness of political matters that are intensified even more because they involve the looming specter of nuclear weaponry.
However, in the North in particular, sports has played a significant role in a strange society.
“Under Kim Jong Un there has been a real renewed focus for sports,” Andray Abrahamian, a research fellow at the Pacific Forum center for strategic and international studies said. “A big part of that is Kim's domestic brand. By investing in sports facilities for ordinary people to use those kind of things are very visually emphasizing that life is better under him than under his father rule, which was defined by famine.
“Also, every country wants to have successful athletes that act or who provide an outlet for nationalism and patriotism and can create a sense of pride in the people of that country. In a way that’s pretty normal but that’s an important shift under Kim Jong-un.”
And so, a pair of North Korea figure skaters have come to compete, while the women’s hockey team is gearing up for its first game against Switzerland on Saturday.
Let the Games begin. As for the political games, who knows when they will end?