As Asian Games kick off, will North Korea flip its way into S. Korean hearts?

North Korea is participating in the Asian Games, due in part to South Korean financial support. As athletes arrive, met by high-security escorts, there's debate in the South over their inclusion. 

Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
North Korean team players sing their national anthem before the men's soccer qualifier match against China for the 17th Asian Games at Incheon Football Stadium September 15, 2014.

There is little to distinguish the North Korean delegation’s living quarters from among the two-dozen apartment blocks that make up the athletes’ village of the Asian Games opening this week in South Korea.

Hanging from the balconies of one tower, nine national flags provide the only obvious sign of Pyongyang’s participation in Asia’s biggest sporting event.

For many South Koreans, the competition that kicks off Friday is more than a mere sporting event. It doubles as the latest in a long list of attempts at engagement with the North, and has been a flashpoint for tension over how to best interact with the South's oft-unruly neighbor.

“I really do hope [the Games are reconciliatory], but there is still a long way to go” says Ahn Sehyun, a professor of international relations at the University of Seoul, who sees the competition as a “stepping stone” to reinitiating talks between both sides. 

“But it is a positive sign” that athletes from the North are participating, he says. “Certainly, it is visible that things are changing in North Korea under the young leader, compared with Kim Jong-Il’s era.” 

'We are one nation' 

The North Koreans share their building with the delegation from China, Pyongyang’s only major ally. The South Koreans, divided from their countrymen in the North for more than 60 years, are accommodated in a separate building a short walk away.

Security has been tight since the first batch of North Koreans arrived last week under police escort from Incheon International Airport, where they were reportedly greeted with cheers of "We are one nation!" by a small group of South Koreans. An armored personnel carrier, SWAT officers, and metal detectors guard the entrance to the compound, restricting access inside. A second segment of the North Korean delegation, dressed in blue and white with the national flag on their lapels, was photographed in the local media this week flanked by security after they arrived. 

Who pays for North Korea?

Just getting the North Koreans to the Games was a controversial task. In July, negotiations on the size and cost of hosting the North's delegation broke down, leaving its participation in doubt.

Seoul eventually agreed to pay a portion of the 273-member delegation's stay, declining to reveal the amount until after the event. At the last Asian Games in the country, held in 2002 under a liberal administration, South Korea paid the majority of the costs of North Korea's participation. 

Seoul’s conservative Park Geun-hye government, whose “trustpolitik” policy calls for trust-building with North Korea through mutual cooperation, may have an additional motivation for being determined to see its neighbor at the games, says Victor Cha, the top North Korean advisor to former US President George W. Bush and author of Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia.

“The administration... wants to look like they are trying, at least, [and] doesn’t want to be blamed for excluding North Korea. There is always a good 25 percent of the South Korean electorate that views North Korea in sort of a more positive light,” he says. 

Fundamental split  

But North Korea’s participation has also generated controversy south of the border, highlighting the fundamental split in domestic politics between liberals who tend to be enthusiastic toward engagement and conservatives who remain guarded. 

One controversy centered around North Korea's cheerleaders – who won devoted fans in the South during the 2002 Games. Last month, Pyongyang reversed an earlier pledge to send cheerleaders, causing the Unification Ministry to send assurances that the cheerleaders were still welcome. 

Even as the Unification Ministry insisted last month that North Korea’s cheerleaders would be received enthusiastically if they came, Seoul’s Defense Ministry described their appearance as a “shell” to conceal their true propaganda purpose. 

Earlier this month, meanwhile, the national flags of the 45 participating countries were removed from the streets of Incheon following protests about the display of the North Korean flag. 

“North Korea has an ulterior agenda for wanting to participate in the Asian Games,” says Song Dae-sung, the president of the Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul that specializes in security and regional affairs.

“The current image of Kim Jong-un has been the very negative one of being an authoritarian military dictatorship. North Korea is going to promote its fake, attractive image through its participation in the Games, hiding its original bad image.”

Aside from cynicism about North Korea’s true motives, some observers simply question the extent to which a sporting event can affect such an uneasy and complicated relationship between countries.

Effective sports diplomacy usually happens in the context of wider engagement, such as the "ping pong diplomacy" of the 1970s that marked a thaw in between the United States and China, says Mr. Cha.

“The problem, I think, in North-South [relations] right now is there isn’t a lot going on, and you just have this Asian Games thing there with the hope that it will somehow generate some sort of diplomat breakthrough. Unfortunately, the reality is the events don’t generate diplomatic breakthroughs if there is no prior undercurrent of policy sort of moving in that direction.”

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