The 23rd Olympic Winter Games in South Korea provide approximately 3000 athletes from across the globe an opportunity to perform on a world stage. These competitors come together in a manner that overcomes borders, defies current and old conflicts, and provides a chance for the best of 92 nations to compete. The Olympic games offer a unique opportunity for humanity to dare to hope that we could all operate like this more frequently than for two weeks every four years.
It has often been said that sporting events transcend political and economic concerns, and it is true that sports such as skiing, skating, and ice hockey do not belong to any country. Anyone can play them anywhere in the world, and that is their inherent beauty. This is how North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and American basketball player Dennis Rodman forged a friendship – through their mutual love of the game.
Time and again we see proof of how sporting events can do much more to bring us together than to tear us apart; however, the games in South Korea have had the element of conflict and the pressure of world affairs hovering over them from the start. Now this is nothing new – think about the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin or more recently the 1984 winter games in Sarajevo – but the stakes in the current situation seem much higher. The specter of a nuclear armed North Korea not that far away from Pyeongchang in the south cannot help but intrude on the pageantry and sports of this competition.
The fact that Kim Yo Jung, sister of Kim Jong Un, came to Pyeongchang and attended the Opening Ceremony of these games was historic and significant. With all the turmoil and fear surrounding her brother’s saber rattling over the years, this moment was decidedly peaceful and meaningful. Sports can bring people from all sides together to appreciate the achievement and beauty of athletes whose training helps them to soar to new heights, and perhaps Jo Yung’s presence is a necessary step toward an even larger accomplishment – moving forward on a road to peace between the Koreas.
You would never know that from the negativity surrounding her visit. Some members of Congress have used this as an opportunity to criticize her and the delegation of North Korean officials. While it is understandable that there can be disdain for a regime that has been accused of atrocities, there must also be a desire to avoid war. This is not a case of appeasement or a payout to a brutal dictatorship, but rather a chance for both sides to forget the rhetoric of disagreement and to start slowly building a relationship that will take these countries – and the world – away from the brink of war.
Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the Opening Ceremony and sat near Ms. Yo Jung in the dignitaries’ section, refused to even acknowledge her presence. That seems a rather odd response at a time when perhaps a greeting of some warmth and decency might have carried some weight when she returned home and let her brother know that the Vice President of the United States treated her respectfully. Our dealings with other rogue countries and repressive nations are proof that we are willing to shake hands with despots when it suits our purposes.
During the Opening Ceremony the two Koreas marched into the arena together carrying a unification flag depicting one Korea. It was an emotional and moving moment, however dramatic and staged, for it represented not only a possibility of a peaceful course for the relationship between the Koreas but also hope for the future of our planet.
The United States should have a unique prospective when viewing what has happened in Korea in the 73 years since World War II. Having had our own experience of being a nation divided between North and South during the Civil War, Americans know what it is like to have a country torn apart, families separated by a disputed border, and a future clouded by the specter of war.
The United States luckily survived the Civil War, reunified, and became stronger even though the conflict proved costly and affected the nation deeply for generations. North and South Korea have not been so fortunate – they remain in a state of war with a demilitarized zone separating the two countries. The South has become a beacon of democracy and has a bustling economy, while the North has risen to be a nuclear power and remains a communist country with many poor citizens and an authoritarian leader.
The United States could have had something similar happen to it if the Civil War had not been decided by a clear victory. Imagine if the war ended in a stalemate, with the South and the North creating a militarized border across the Mason-Dixon line and beyond. The Southern states would have remained a different country and our nation would have been forever torn apart. Our country and the world would be a decidedly different place, with the outcome of two world wars and many other historical events in question.
It is understandable to be concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program, its grim human rights record, and the treatment of foreigners like the horrific case of Otto Warmbier who was held for over a year and tortured before being sent home to his parents in America to die. Despite knowing North Korea’s abysmal track record, the unprecedented cooperation between the Koreas is also a reality negotiated by them. This thaw in frigid relations should not be discounted, for the possibility of a peaceful resolution is always more desirable than the alternative.
The games will be over after next week, but the reverberations of the visit of Kim Jo Yung and the North Korea delegation, along with the participation of North Korean athletes and cheerleaders in the games, will remain a memorable and defining moment of this Olympics. This is not something that should be taken lightly but rather utilized as the first step toward ending the hostilities between North and South Korea.
It is clear that in sending his sister, other high-ranking officials, and North Korean athletes to South Korea, Kim Jong Un is extending an olive branch. South Korean President Moon Jae-in seems to recognize the importance of not taking this for granted, and he may in the months ahead embark on a journey to the North to participate in talks with Kim Jong Un.
The world wants and needs a peaceful resolution for Korea. No one, including the government of the United States, should do anything to impede that possibility. If talks between the two nations can bring peace and stability, that will be a thrill of victory that overshadows the glories of winning Olympic medals. If that happens, this Olympics in South Korea will long be remembered as making peace possible, so why can’t the rest of us be willing to give it a chance.