Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Sports diplomacy may not work for ties

By Jin Qiangyi (China Daily) Updated: 2014-09-19 07:36

The 17th Asian Games, which opens in Incheon, the Republic of Korea, on Thursday, is a major sports event for most participants. But for athletes from the two parts of the Korean Peninsula, it will be yet another platform for a new round of political game.

After grudgingly announcing the cancellation of its cheering squad's trip to the ROK on Aug 28, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea has blamed Seoul officials for deliberately thwarting the visit by citing restrictive international norms and raising the question of scheduled expenses. Minor as it may seem, the dispute over the scale of the DPRK delegation reflects more deep-seated inter-Korean tensions, including the longstanding political confrontation between the two sides.

Even while preparations for the Asian Games were going on, the DPRK reiterated its nuclear weapons development program is "indispensable" for the protection of the country, which means Pyongyang will not abandon or scale down its nuclear program. After that came the news of a 24-year-old American citizen being sentenced to six years of hard labor for illegally entering the DPRK with the intention to spy against the country, which will further strain DPRK-US relations.

Over the past five years, the Korean Peninsula has been rocked by a series of incidents, some of them major, including the two nuclear tests carried out by Pyongyang in 2009 and in 2013, and the sinking of ROK corvette Cheonan and exchange of artillery fire between the two sides on Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. Notably, the Cheonan incident directly led to Seoul suspending all interactions, including civil exchanges, with Pyongyang.

For ROK President Park Geun-hye, however, the Incheon Asiad might be a good platform to push forward her "Trust Politik" policy, which has not yielded much result in easing tensions on the Peninsula.

Tensions on the Peninsula had indeed eased when a 288-member DPRK cheering squad traveled to Busan in the ROK for the 2002 Asian Games. But this time things are different, especially because Pyongyang has little intention of apologizing to Seoul for the recent incidents, or of abandoning its nuclear program. This might have prompted Seoul to assume that, Pyongyang is pushing for the resumption of bilateral exchanges by participating in the Incheon Asiad without taking responsibility for the incidents, including the Cheonan controversy incident. Perhaps this is why the ROK has not made in concession to invite the DPRK cheering squad to Incheon.

The DPRK, on its part, could think that the political significance of taking part in the Asiad far outweighs the importance of the sports event itself. Facing severe sanctions imposed by the international community and dwindling inter-Korean exchanges, Pyongyang is desperate to find a way out of economic isolation. And, naturally, the first step to finding a way out is to reconcile with Seoul, particularly because many people in the ROK have urged their government to resume bilateral communications.

But given its refusal to apologize for the past incidents, the DPRK's "sports diplomacy" in Incheon can only partly influence inter-Korean relations. It is thus clear that to break the deadlock and draw Seoul to the table, Pyongyang will need more than mere soft power diplomacy.

The author is a professor of Korean Studies at Yanbian University in Jilin province.

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