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Two Koreas' dream: one Olympic team

The North and South have agreed in principle to field one team for the 2008 games in Beijing.

By Donald KirkCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 2005


After marching their two teams under one banner in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, North and South Korea have agreed to take their symbolic reconciliation a step further by fielding one joint Korean team for the 2008 games in Beijing.

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But an agreement in principle with North Korea is one thing. Agreeing on details is quite another. While the Koreas have proposed unifying their teams since the 1960s, the often acrimonious negotiations over equal representation never resulted in unified teams.

This time, however, there is some reason for optimism. "If it's ever going to work, it's going to work now," says Kim Sang Woo, secretary-general of South Korea's Olympic committee.

Many Koreans, in fact, see a unified team not just as a logical extension to years of inter-Korean rapprochement, but as possibly another milestone toward fulfillment of the ultimate dream of reunification.

While hopeful, Mr. Kim is fully prepared for tough talks with North Koreans over the proposed merger when they meet early next month in Kaesong, a North Korean city - that is also the site of a new industrial zone the South Koreans are building - several miles north of the truce village of Panmunjom.

"In the past, North Korea has requested equal numbers," he says, "so it's going to be something we have to discuss." Still, he says he believes that "North Korea is also very much more favorable" than in the past to coming to agreement.

The numbers game, in the view of others at the Korean Olympic committee as well as analysts, may be the most delicate challenge.

Although North and South Korean athletes marched together at the opening and closing ceremonies in Sydney and Athens behind the "unification" flag, a map of the Korean peninsula in light blue on a white field, the fact is that South Korea has sent about five times as many athletes and won many times more medals.

At Athens in 2004, for instance, South Korea's 300 athletes finished ninth among medalists, behind such competitors as the United States, China, Russia, Australia, Japan, Germany, France, and Italy.

Excelling in martial arts, archery, table tennis, and badminton, the South Koreans picked up nine gold medals, as many as Britain, ranked one notch behind in the overall medal count. North Korea, in contrast, ranked 58th with no golds, four silvers, and a bronze. And in two categories, men's featherweight boxing and pistol-shooting from 50 meters, in which North Koreans won silvers, South Koreans were right behind them with bronze medals.

"They'll come to terms on teams," says John Shin, a publisher, brushing aside doubts about uniting the North and South Korean teams. "Everybody is for it."

Kim is also convinced that "the North Koreans are sincere" in their commitment to a single team, but he's well aware of the issue of face when it comes to settling on the numbers. "They do have a problem of how they are going to resolve this question," he says. "They do not want to appear subsidiary to the South. We will try to be flexible, to have an overall balance."

Despite the likelihood of more heated debate, Kim says the formation of a single Korean Olympic team will be the culmination of "various external and internal factors" that appear "favorable."