The diplomatic thaw on the Korean Peninsula took another careful step as it was announced that North and South Korea will be fielding a joint women’s ice hockey team with both sides planning to march under a pro-unification flag. North Korea is also planning to send over 230 of its cheerleading team, a popular addition to the opening ceremony.
The news is significant for several key reasons, the main one being the joint team which is the first time in history that both sides have sent a joint team to the Olympics. It also helps bolster North Korea’s roster of athletes as only two figure skaters qualified to compete from North Korea. Despite the negotiations going at a breath-taking pace, there are so many details to figure like the size of North Korea’s delegation, who will pay for them and how they will make the highly symbolic march across the DMZ into South Korea.
The Korean Unification Flag is also a big moment. While it is mostly symbolic, a blue silhouette of the peninsula and outlying islands, the flag has been flown at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships as well as a number of other sporting events. The last time it was seen at the Olympics was the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Re-unification is a big issue for both sides and no one is expecting this to be anything but a symbolic gesture. That said, it is a sign that North Korea seems intent on showing its more peaceful side during the Games.
Indeed, the Games are the best chance of letting off steam and helping to de-escalate the high tensions that brought the world dangerously close to nuclear war last year. Some hope that the Olympics will be North Korea’s ‘sports diplomacy’, giving both sides of the conflict a chance to see the other side in a new light.
But appearances might be deceiving. The Trump administration is suspicious and even upset at this diplomatic move, seeing it as Kim Jong-un trying to undercut them and separate them from their South Korean ally. They are not entirely wrong. North Korea has often proposed diplomatic talks, only to resume their nuclear missile tests or provoking acts of aggression such as bombarding outlying islands. No one truly knows what North Korea might do next. Their recent efforts to open up talks and help de-escalate tensions is simply the latest twist in a tale of surprise and uncertainty.
There are many questions surrounding this movement for peace. Is there a chance that this is a genuine move towards a peaceful solution? What is China’s role in this? Is North Korea simply buying time to prepare its nuclear stockpiles or are they trying a different tack? Kim Jong-un is not stupid or insane. He knows as well as anyone that brinksmanship and testing the West’s patience can only take him so far. He needs a new solution, a new way forward that doesn’t involve all-out war.
Only time will tell whether North Korea is serious about this diplomatic thaw. The Winter Olympics is an excellent opportunity to help bring North Korea closer to a diplomatic solution and we should not underestimate this gesture, even if it is mostly symbolic. Even the smallest gesture can have huge consequences for the future.
We shall see. For now, let the Games begin!