An ice sculpture of the Olympic rings is seen during the Pyeongchang Winter Festival, near the venue for the opening and closing ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, February 10, 2017.  Photo: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters
An ice sculpture of the Olympic rings is seen during the Pyeongchang Winter Festival, near the venue for the opening and closing ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, February 10, 2017. Photo: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

The anxious countdown to the Winter Olympics enters the final stretch, with both South Korea and regional states holding their collective breath for a safe sporting competition in Pyeongchang. Now with North Korea’s planned participation in the Games, there appears to be a temporary pause both in regional tensions and in the bigger standoff between Kim Jong-un and the outside world.

The Korean Olympic thaw evokes what a New York sports legend once gibed was “Deja vu all over again.” In other words, we have seen this before, and right here on the divided Korean Peninsula.

Back in 1988, the Summer Olympiad was scheduled for Seoul. The setting conjured up fears of terrorism and a renewed conflict with Kim Il-sung’s regime, and equally faced rumbling domestic unrest from pro-democracy demonstrators confronting the military government that then ruled South Korea. The situation remained tense, as Seoul was a mere 50 kilometers from the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Korean states.

Faced with a clear threat of conflict and domestic chaos, South Korea’s government took a prudent path. President Chun Doo-hwan’s authoritarian rule was buffeted by increasingly violent student demonstrations, creating a delicate domestic backdrop in which to hold the Games. After much behind-the-scenes prodding from the administration of US president Ronald Reagan to decompress the situation, in June 1987, the Blue House announced a series of democratic reforms that would pave the way for free elections and domestic tranquility.

After elections later that year, the newly elected South Korean president, Roh Tae-woo (himself the coordinator of the Olympic Organizing Committee), pressed for a Nordpolitik policy that would in effect isolate Pyongyang from its key political patrons in Moscow and Beijing. The policy focused on inviting the Russians, the Chinese, and their comrades. Thus if Seoul’s proverbial enemies were inside the Games, they wouldn’t attack. But beyond sporting ties, the real incentive for Russia and China lay in trade and investment ties with South Korea.

This tactic worked remarkably well, for a number of reasons. Recall that the 1980 Moscow Olympics had faced a US and Western boycott due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year. Moscow returned the favor by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Moreover, with a political thaw in the Cold War, the Seoul government took advantage of this remarkable window of opportunity, which in hindsight opened a new chapter in South Korea’s standing in the world as a major trading power.

Interestingly, leading up to the Games, the South Koreans opened back channels to Hungary to deal with the more reasonable members of the Soviet bloc.

Showcasing South Korea

Significantly, as much as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics presented a prosperous and reborn Japan, the 1988 Seoul Olympiad successfully showcased South Korea, putting the brand and the image of this newly prosperous East Asian state on the global stage. Indeed, the Seoul Olympics were about politics and trade as much as they were about sport.

After the Summer Games, Seoul opened formal diplomatic relations with both Moscow and Beijing, and a surge of commercial links soon followed.

Remarkably, these events are now a generation ago; Seoul recognized Moscow and Beijing in 1990 and 1991 respectively. Pyongyang’s isolation increased exponentially.

Fast-forward to the present. North Korea now has nuclear weapons and has regularly threatened to use them, prompting rhetorical fusillades across the Pacific. After a year of dangerous showdowns with the United States and South Korea over its nuclear and missile proliferation, Kim Jong-un has opted for a tactical charm offensive.

Tightening United Nations economic sanctions and Washington’s political pressure have played a key role in in Pyongyang’s turnaround. “I give President Trump huge credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks, and I’d like to thank him for that,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in told a news conference. The recent inter-Korean talks led to the Olympic breakthrough.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach announced that both nations would march in together at the Pyeongchang opening ceremony. Bach called the deal a “milestone on a long journey.”

While allowing a joint team representing the Korean nation is applauded by most, the planned use of a generic unification flag in place of the Republic of Korea’s iconic Taegeuk banner has created dissent in the South, where according to The Korea Times fully half of South Koreans oppose the policy allowing this unity flag. Equally many ROK citizens firmly criticize the troupe of 200 North Korean cheerleaders coming to the Winter Games.

But sport and pomp aside, Pyeongchang presents South Korea with a renewed opportunity to create a new image: ROK 2.0. Rebranding and updating an already positive image will show contemporary South Korea as a modern, prosperous, tech-savvy state promoting reconciliation.

Now comes the toughest part: keeping peace on the divided Korean Peninsula.

John J. Metzler

John J Metzler is a longtime UN correspondent covering diplomatic, defense and developmental issues. He is the author of a number of books such as Divided Dynamism: The Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China. He is a regular visitor to the region.

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