SEOUL (Reuters) - While ping pong diplomacy worked wonders for China-U.S. relations, sport and politics have made for uncomfortable bedfellows on the Korean peninsula.
A half-century has passed since armistice brought the 1950-53 Korean conflict to a close but despite a significant thaw in relations in recent years the prospects for reunification of the capitalist South and communist North remain remote.
Efforts to harness the Olympics as a tool for reconciliation have met with some success and the two Koreas should once again march under a single flag at the Beijing opening ceremony on August 8, though they were unable to thrash out an agreement to compete as a joint team.
At other sporting events, progress has been patchy.
On June 22, a soccer World Cup qualifier between the two passed off without incident in a genuinely warm atmosphere in Seoul but three months earlier their first game had been moved from Pyongyang to Shanghai due to a diplomatic row.
North Korea refused to play the South’s national anthem or raise its flag, forcing FIFA to step in and switch the match to a neutral venue.
For the athletes, political issues should be a secondary consideration to success, said South Korea’s most successful female archer Kim Soo-nyung.
Kim, who earned four gold medals between 1988 and 2000, faced a North Korean for the individual archery bronze in Sydney at a time when relations between Seoul and Pyongyang were improving.
”There was talk about whether I should let her win,“ she told Reuters. ”If politics was the main priority I guess I could have.
“But what matters in sport is the result. I did my best as an athlete, won the bronze and the North Korean didn’t win anything. That’s sport.”
The two Koreas have found it easier to compromise on the Olympic stage and analysts say even symbolic sporting gestures could reap rewards given the current state of North-South relations.
Pyongyang has delivered particularly stinging criticism of the South’s new conservative president, Lee Myung-bak.
“North and South Korea marching together at opening ceremonies might be symbolic but with tension running so high between the two governments now the march at the Beijing Games may even play a role in improving ties,” said Yoo Ho-yeol, a North Korea expert at Korea University.
The Olympics have no equal in terms of profile and prestige, focusing the attention of the world on the host nation.
Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan hoped hosting the 1988 Games in Seoul would showcase the country’s ‘economic miracle’ and deliver legitimacy to his authoritarian regime.
Instead, with the world and International Olympic Committee (IOC) watching, South Koreans protested their way to democracy, forcing Chun to step down. The Korean strongman’s reaction to pro-democracy demonstrations might have been very different without the fate of the Olympics hanging over his head.
While the 1988 Olympics helped South Korea to become a genuine global player, they might also have widened the rift with the North, which demanded to co-host the Games.
South Korea rejected the North’s demand but negotiations with the IOC eventually led to an offer for North Korea to host several events, including archery and table tennis. The then IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch called it “a very generous proposal, an historic one.”
North Korea rejected the idea. Along with Cuba, Ethiopia and Nicaragua, it boycotted the 1988 Olympics, while South Korea hosted one of the most memorable Games.
“The Seoul Olympic Games and the North’s boycott raised the South’s stature in the international community,” said North Korea expert Yoo. “At the same time it deepened the North’s isolation.”
Those Games featured the infamous Ben Johnson doping affair, Roy Jones Jr’s highly disputed loss to a South Korean boxer, Greg Louganis smashing his head on a diving board and gold-medal performances from Florence Griffith Joyner and Steffi Graf.
Seoul also saw Russian and U.S. athletes compete against each other following the boycotts of Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles four years later.
While Seoul’s experience showed the enormous impact of the Olympics, analysts believe the scrutiny associated with the Beijing Games will not force China to up the pace of change.
“When it made the bid in 2001, China pledged to clean up on the environment and human rights and make political reforms,” said Shin Sang-jin, a China expert at Seoul’s Kwangwoon University.
“It has done so to a certain degree but the leadership is not going to go as far as to put the question of its sovereignty and loss of its authority with the public on the line.”
Additional reporting by Jack Kim, Editing by Clare Fallon