South Korean protesters tear up a huge Japanese flag during a rally near the Japanese embassy in Seoul in 2019. Under the new president, scenes like this could become less common. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

South Korea’s foreign policy is deadlocked as it seeks to manage problematic relations with North Korea and Japan.

While Pyongyang persists in defying the international community with is missile programs, Seoul and Tokyo are engaged in a multi-pronged history/diplomatic/trade spat.

All this suggests that one of South Korea’s customary soft-power instruments, sport diplomacy, faces headwinds. Even so, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games nearing, South Korea could utilize sport diplomacy to overcome complications of its own making – notably, poor alliance management.

Proud heritage, recent risks

The country’s successful hosting of the 1988 Seoul Olympics – which did not suffer the boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Summer Games – was a national “coming-out party” for a newly risen industrial power and newly minted democracy. Held on the eve of communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe, the 1988 Games proved the resilience of the Olympics over the politics of the Cold War.

The 2002 World Cup, jointly hosted with Japan, was another triumph. Compared with 1988, the event showcased a new, fun and funkier Korea: A high-tech powerhouse and home to K-pop, complete with an enthusiastic, soccer-mad population who welcomed the world.

The 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang were yet another chance for South Korea to engage neighbors and global partners in soft diplomacy. The South Korean administration used it as an opportunity to engage North Korea and formulate an inter-Korean team, leading to improved relations later in the year.

Today, however, South Korea’s proud legacy of sport diplomacy is at risk.

On the one hand, North Korea’s offensive behavior toward the Moon Jae-in administration has not deterred Seoul’s efforts. However, October’s inter-Korean FIFA soccer match between North and South – held in an empty stadium in Pyongyang in a chilly ambiance, and completely un-televised – hints at major problems.

On the other hand South Korea is irking Japan by taking its fellow Northeast Asian democracy to task over the latter’s “Rising Sun” flag and symbol.

Is an inter-Korean team possible?

Sport exchanges flourished as the two Koreas undertook political rapprochement during the early 2000s, with liberal administrations in Seoul pursuing inter-Korean detente and warmer ties backed by offers of aid and investment. The two Koreas marched together in the Olympic opening ceremonies in 2000, 2004, 2006 and 2018.

But even during those years, a permanent joint Olympic team remained out of reach. South Korean athletes have objected to relinquishing their hard-won spots and coaches say the two Koreas remained just too far apart in mentality, training and abilities.

While the Moon administration attempts to enhance inter-Korean relations – including with sport diplomacy – this approach ignores the fact that North Korea is a totalitarian state. North Korea’s recent actions at the soccer match represent, at best, a very poor display of sporting spirit.

The Swastika and the Rising Sun

At the 1936 Summer Olympic Games, the German Olympic Committee barred German Jews and Romas from participating as Adolf Hitler promoted ideals of racial supremacy and anti-Semitism.

As a result of the Nazis’ anti-Semitism, there was a considerable debate on either boycotting the Olympic Games or relocating them away from Germany. But when the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States decided, nevertheless, to compete, other countries followed suit.

Nazi Party Swastika flags were on full show during the Olympic Games, but because of the AAU’s decision to allow American athletes to compete in Berlin, Jesse Owens went on to win three gold medals in track and field while Hitler watched. That proved that non-whites were not inferior beings.

The two Koreas may have to compete in Tokyo with some Japanese citizens waving flags or wearing symbols that represent suffering for the Korean people. South Korea had asked the International Olympic Committee to ban the “Rising Sun” flag at the Tokyo Games, calling it symbolic of Japan’s brutal Imperial and wartime past and comparing it to the Swastika.

The Olympic Charter states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

However, the 2020 Olympic Organizing Committee, chaired by former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori, insists that the Rising Sun is not a “political statement.” Tokyo supports this view: Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the symbol is “widely used” in Japan – for example, by fishermen to hail a rich haul, and by those celebrating birth and seasonal festivals.

Onward to Tokyo 2020

The Greeks held ceasefires during the ancient games at Mount Olympia. The 2020 Olympics is an opportunity for South Korea to engage and vitalize sour relations with its neighbors in the spirit of the Olympics; indeed, it is one of the few soft-diplomatic instruments South Korea can bring to bear on all regional players.

In Tokyo, Seoul must ensure that its national pride and prestige is not impacted by the complications of recent diplomatic maneuvers.

Continuing to protest the Rising Sun flag will constrain improved relations with Japan amid US-China strategic rivalry and the Korean Peninsula’s endless confrontation. And while pursuing sport diplomacy with North Korea, South Korea has to understand that action must be followed by reaction.

Now is not the time for idealistic ambitions. Rather, it is the time for well-defined, pragmatic sport diplomacy mission objectives at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

This article was co-written with Abdiel Lawrence, an intelligence analyst for the United States European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. He received his Master’s in International Peace and Security from Korea University.

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