Dan Jacobson discusses the use of the Korean Unification flag at the Olympics
On Wednesday 17th January, it was announced that North and South Korea will march under one flag at the upcoming Winter Olympics, to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month.
The Korean Unification Flag, consisting of a white background displaying a light blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula, has been used before, most notably at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, 2000, and Athens, 2004, but has not been used since the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. Whilst these plans still require confirmation from the International Olympic Committee, with North Korea having missed the invitation deadline, there are major plans in order for the North Korean delegation. This includes many athletes, some 230 cheerleaders, and a united women’s ice hockey team, the first time a united team has competed at the Olympics.
The decision has experienced some scepticism from those embroiled in the conflict, with Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono telling Reuters, “It is not the time to ease pressure, or to reward North Korea”. On the other hand, these agreements give some indication that the current peace talks, complicated by North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear programme, are showing signs of progress. However, whilst the Olympics have provided a backdrop for diplomacy, they have also displayed the complicated and fractured relationship between the two powers.
On September 30th, 1981, Seoul was announced as the host city for the 1988 Summer Olympics. This was of huge significance for South Korea. Having emerged poverty-stricken from the Korean War, 30 years prior, this was an opportunity for their president Chun Doo-hwan to encourage international recognition and legitimisation of his authoritarian government, and showcase the successes of the Fourth Republic, where government-backed industry had resulted in massive economic gains. This post-war period became known as “The Miracle on the Han River”, and culminated, on a sporting level, in South Korea’s co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup with Japan.
Whilst South Korea were jubilant, North Korea were reeling, interpreting the 1988 Olympics as international acceptance of a society still heavily reliant on foreign aid. Encouraged by Fidel Castro, North Korea were offered to host a few minor events, such as archery. Seeing this as salt rubbed into the wound, North Korea rejected. In light of this newly-incited tension, only time would tell how the North would respond.
North Korea’s damaged pride manifested itself on two large occasions prior to 1988. The first, the Rangoon bombing of 1983, killed 21, including Deputy Prime Minister Suh Seok-jun and other senior ministers of South Korea’s Parliament, in an attempt to assassinate President Chun. The second, the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, killed 115 people flying from Abu Dhabi to Seoul. Whilst one of the perpetrators committed suicide using a cyanide capsule following detection, the other, Kim Hyon-hiu, after eight days of interrogation, was sentenced to death, but was then pardoned, and has since become a critic of current North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un.
The Korean Unification Flag was first used at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan, just three years following the 1988 Olympics. Having supposedly taken 22 rounds of talks, the event provided a pertinent moment in the relationship between the two nations, when the women’s team won the gold medal, beating a Chinese team who had been deemed “unbeatable”. The story was adapted for the film As One in 2012 with Bae Doona, known for her roles in Cloud Atlas and Sense8, playing North Korean player Li Bun-Hui.
From a cynical perspective, it is possible that the presence of a large North Korean delegation could act as a lifeline for South Korea, who can rest in peace that, with tension mounting on the border, North Korea will not attempt to disrupt the Games with their own athletes present. However, as shown in the past, this decision reinforces the extraordinary power of sport, and the Olympic Games, as a testament for encouraging harmony. It is too early to predict whether this optimism is in order, but for now, we can consider this a hurdle surpassed.
Image credit: Wikimedia