A flag depicting a combined Korea is proudly displayed during the 2018 Winter Olympics. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon
A flag depicting a combined Korea is proudly displayed during the 2018 Winter Olympics. Photo: Asia Times/Andrew Salmon

Korean and Japanese eyes will be firmly trained on the field of play as the 18th Asian Games proceed in Jakarta and Palembang in Indonesia.

The two Koreas are fielding a joint team, while Japan, which hosts the Summer Olympics in two years’ time, will be looking at the Games — sometimes dubbed the “Asian Olympics” — as possible benchmarks for Tokyo 2020.

The ongoing Asiad is the last major regional event prior to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics— which is, itself, the second in Northeast Asia’s “hat trick” of Olympics events.

The 2018 Winter Olympics took place in South Korea’s Pyeongchang; the 2020 Summer Games are set for Tokyo; and the  2022 Winter Olympics take place in Beijing, China. The next Asian Games, which also take place in 2022, are to be contested in Hangzhou, China.

Inter-Korean team gets off to good start

The two Koreas are entering combined squads at the Asiad in women’s basketball, rowing, canoeing and dragon-boat racing.  Events got off to a good start for Koreans from both sides on the Demilitarized Zone on Wednesday, with the combined team women’s basketball team scoring a 108-40 win over host Indonesia in the women’s basketball preliminaries.

Although a joint inter-Korean table tennis team won the mixed doubles final at the Korean Open in July, yesterday’s result is excellent compared to the last time an inter-Korean team competed in an Olympic-grade event. At the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea early this year, the Women’s Ice Hockey Team lost all five matches. Still, while there was some controversy over combining the teams at the last minute — some South Korean fans complained that it weakened the team and withdrew the opportunity for some southern players to win glory — the end result was a feel-good story.

The Koreas agreed to a joint march-on and a combined squad for the Jakarta-Palembang games on June 18, after talks in the truce village of Panmunjom, in the DMZ. A series of inter-Korean basketball matches — a favorite sport of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — were held in Pyongyang in July. These developments followed the 2018 Winter Games, which have been dubbed “The Peace Olympics. ”

“We shared the view that sport initiated inter-Korean rapprochement and cooperation,” Jeon Choong-ryul, secretary-general of the (South) Korean Sport and Olympic Committee, told a news conference in July.

Many inter-Korean sport events…

There is a long history of inter-Korean matches and combined teams.

The first inter-Korean football tournament was held in 1990, and an inter-Korean team played at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships. That event — where a flag representing the unified peninsula flew for the first time — later became the subject of a South Korean feature film.

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the Athens Olympics in 2004, the Torino Winter Olympics in 2006 and the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018, the two Koreas marched on together under a unified flag. North Korean teams have also competed at major events in South Korea, including the 2003 Universiade and the 2014 Asian Games.

Sports officials were gushing over the result at the joint Korean women’s basketball team Wednesday.

“The women’s basketball game proved the power of sport to unite people,” said Husain Al Mussalam, director general of the Olympic Council of Asia, according to Yonhap. “ It was not only the players from North Korea and South Korea who were together, but also the officials and the supporters.”

Alas, the winning streak did not last: The unified Korea team lost on Friday to Chinese Taipei. While South Korea is the defending champion in women’s basketball, North Korea has never won an Asia Games medal in the event, according to The Korea Herald newspaper.

“I think from the purely sports point of view, combined teams may be problematic; they have to be handled very carefully as they introduce politics to sports and one reason we like sports, is politics is out of it,” said Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans. “What happens if you find all the athletes on one side are third rate compared to the athletes on the other side? How do you make the cut?”

…but minimal political impact

No joint-Korean sports team or inter-Korean sports event has yet managed to upgrade relations to the point where a significant easing of cross-border tensions has been achieved over the long term.

“The novelty factor still exists in terms of united Korea teams and that excites even if past joint teams have not led to anything concrete in a non-sports field,” said John Duerden, a journalist who covers sports across Asia.

Even so, Breen saw some pros to the joint team. “Sports is an area that people with differences can sort of agree on, thought whether it has done more than temporarily inspire people — I don’t think it has,” he said. “But there is another purpose for the leadership of a dictatorship, and that is sending a signal to their own people and apparatchiks — that there is a new direction happening here. That may be most significant.”

And with both Koreas agreeing that baby steps for trust and reconciliation need to be taken in advance of any major political breakthrough, the Asiad’s combined team looks like a plus.

“If this can be the start of a consistent trend of united teams in all kinds of sporting tournaments then it certainly can’t hurt in terms of deepening relationships, increasing understanding and bringing the two populations closer together,” said Duerden.

Looking to Tokyo 2020  – and karate’s Olympic debut

Korea’s neighbor in Northeast Asia is looking to the Games for different reasons: As Japan gears up for the Summer Olympics in 2020, it will be keeping a close eye on events in Jakarta-Palembang.

“We do think that the Asian Games will definitely be important in the run-up to Tokyo 2020,” the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) said in a recent statement, Reuters reported. “Japan are definitely approaching this Asian Games with an eye on Tokyo 2020,” Duerden added.

Two new disciplines, sport climbing and karate, will be contested in Tokyo as demonstration sports. Both are also appearing at the Asian Games. For the Japanese, karate — a home-grown sport, which originated as a martial art in Okinawa in the 19th century — is especially significant.

Japan’s grappling martial art, judo, was first included in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and has since become an Olympic medal sport that is played globally. But attempts to win Olympic entry for its traditional wrestling system, sumo, have not been successful.

And — as in so many other areas, from commerce to politics to pop culture — Japan faces a competitor next door.

The only other Asian sport on the Summer Olympics program is taekwondo, which originated in South Korea in the 1950s. It first appeared as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, became a medal sport in Sydney in 2000, and has appeared at all Summer Olympics since then.

Karate and taekwondo are similar kick-punch combat sports with shared roots. With the International Olympic Committee determined to cap the number of events at the Summer Olympics, Japan’s karate will have an uphill struggle if it is to move beyond a demonstration sport and join — or replace — South Korea’s well-established taekwondo at the Paris Summer Olympics 2024.