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North Korea’s Olympic challenge

Shift in thought

In accepting South Korea’s offer to join it at the Winter Olympics, the Kim regime may be buying into a common diplomatic technique of building up trust through sports as a way to avoid war.

Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik of North Korea compete during the pairs short program at the Figure Skating-ISU Challenger Series in Oberstdorf, Germany, Sept. 28, 2017.
AP Photo
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  • The Monitor's Editorial Board

When South Korea proposed last year that North Korea participate in next month’s Winter Olympics, it hoped to turn the event in its Taebaek Mountains into a “peace Olympics.” Sure enough, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un not only accepted the offer in a New Year’s speech, he agreed to hold talks – which took place for 10 hours on Jan. 9 –  with the aim to “defuse military tensions” between the two countries.

In making this surprise move, Mr. Kim may be simply diverting the world’s attention once again as he builds up a nuclear arsenal. Yet even the hawkish Trump White House supports South Korea’s initiative, and perhaps for good reason. Countries in a potentially deadly conflict often choose a peaceful diversion like sports or joint research to break the ice, scope each other out and – maybe, just maybe – break the barriers of mistrust and prevent a war.

A sampling of how the February Olympics might play out in Pyeongchang was seen last summer when North Korea’s top athletes for the Olympics, figure skating pair Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, trained in Canada alongside South Korean skaters for two months. Stereotypes melted. They began to root for each other.

“When I meet them again, I want to say, ‘It’s good to see you after a long time,’ ” South Korean skater Kim Kyu-eun told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “And I want to compete well against them as friendly rivals.”

In exploring their bonds beyond the bombast of North-South rhetoric, the skaters turned a zero-sum competition into a postive-sum opportunity. That is how it goes when nations at odds build bridges, say, in joint development of ocean resources or in an exchange of cultural works. Shared interests can define a common good, which then allows an agreement on universal values at work and perhaps a spiritual accord that helps transcend fear or a desire for domination.

Such a lifting of thought has been found in “ping-pong diplomacy” between China and the United States in the 1970s, in the mutual trade pacts between Germany and France after World War II, in joint space exploration between Russia and the US, or even in midnight basketball games in gang-infested American neighborhoods.

Peace can come quietly through a back door by a shifting of national identity or a cultural difference. North Korea is under economic pressure from the world right now to change its ways. In accepting the offer of joining South Korea at the Olympics, it may find a common light that will lead it away from its dark path.

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