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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

First, the emergence of a single team jibes with unremitting efforts by South Korea at pursuing a policy of reconciliation with the North. The event would be seen as another marker on a path that began with Kim Dae Jung's election as president in December 1997 and his pursuit throughout his five-year term of his Sunshine policy vis-à-vis the North.

Since 2000, North-South relations have expanded steadily even as the North has suffered famine and disease and rising reports of human rights abuses by refugees who have made it to the South through China. Kim Dae Jung's Sunshine policy reached a climax in June 2000 when he flew to Pyongyang to see North Korean leader Kim Jong Il for the first-ever inter-Korean summit - a turning point that laid the groundwork for more trade and investment, the opening of the industrial complex in Kaesong, and construction of rail and road links to Kaesong and Mount Kumkang, a region that was first opened to tourists from the South in 1998.

The budding relationship, though, has lurched ahead by fits and starts, as epitomized by delays in opening these links to traffic, the failure of South Korean investors to make more than minimal returns on investment, and long delays between small-scale family visits that were to have occurred frequently. Against this background, it is uncertain whether a joint team, if formed, would mark a real advance beyond symbolic significance.

China, however, is expected to encourage the two to come together, just as it has encouraged agreement on the six-party talks on the North's nuclear-weapons program.

The fact that Beijing is hosting the 2008 Olympics, Kim firmly believes, is one reason why the two Koreas are likely somehow to work out the selection of coaches and athletes for what would be the first unified North-South Korean team in the 60 years since the peninsula was divided at the end of World War II. "The Chinese would like to see a unified team take part in the Beijing Olympics," says Kim, talking after his return Wednesday from Macao. "They'll certainly give it a push."

Not everyone here shares Kim's optimism about overcoming this obstacle.

"South Koreans are not very enthusiastic about integration of sports teams," says Suh Jae Jin, a senior research scholar at the Korea Institute of National Unification. "They have tried several times to unify a team, but failed. [P]eople are not very expectant about the results."

A veteran official at the Korea Olympics Committee laughs when asked about prospects for a team. "Maybe it's possible," he says, "and maybe it's not possible."

Kim, for his part, insists the team members "will be selected by process of competition and strict grading" - though some outstanding players might somehow go to Beijing even if they did not compete.

The process of selection faces an early test in April, the deadline for accepting the invitation to participate in the Asian Games at Doha, in Qatar, in December. Those games will reveal whether North and South Korea can put together a unified team and compete effectively against strictly Asian rivals in games in which the South generally ranks nearly up with China and Japan in the medals count.

"You have to wait and see," says Kim. "Until the last minute, you cannot be certain."

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