Could sports diplomacy be key to resolving North Korea's nuclear impasse?

An ice sculpture of the Olympic rings that has been built near the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
An ice sculpture of the Olympic rings that has been built near the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL - South Korea has once again urged the North to join the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, a move that some experts consider key in unlocking the nuclear impasse.

North Korean figure skating duo Kim Ju Sik and Ryom Tae Ok have already qualified for the games to be held next February, but it remains to be seen whether the regime will send them.

South Korea's Unification Minister Cho Myoung Gyon said on Tuesday (Nov 28) it will be a "good opportunity" for North Korean athletes to join the international sporting event, and that the Korean government is working closely with the International Olympic Committee to secure North Korea's participation.

"There is no official response yet from North Korea. There's no positive or negative response… Let's just wait and see," he said at a foreign media briefing.

Some analysts expect the Winter Olympics to be a crucial turning point, and that sports diplomacy could help bring down tensions that skyrocketed after the North launched a spate of missile and nuclear tests in a bid to develop a nuclear-tipped inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking mainland United States.

The lack of provocations in more than 70 days - the longest since last winter - is viewed by some observers as a temporary freeze in its nuclear programme. The North last lobbed a missile over Japan on Sept 15.

While Pyongyang remains unusually quiet, Seoul has ramped up efforts to resume communication with its belligerent cousin and broker a peace deal. Its latest move this week is sending two key officials - Vice-Minister for Unification Chun Hae Sung and nuclear envoy Lee Do Hoon to the US for talks.

Mr Joel Wit from John Hopkins University's US-Korea Institute sees a window of opportunity in the next three to six months for Washington to engage Pyongyang.

Speaking at a recent seminar in Seoul, he recalled how the US lifted some sanctions on North Korea after it did not launch any provocations during the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and how the goodwill built eventually led to the signing of a 1994 agreement for the regime to freeze its nuclear programme.

Mr Wit suggested scaling back or cancelling the annual US-Korea joint military exercise that would coincide with the winter games. "North Korea could respond with a moratorium on testing and agree to starting preliminary talks to reduce tension before and after the Olympics," he said.

Other experts, however, voiced concern that North Korea may launch provocations to undermine the Winter Olympics.

Reports surfaced on Tuesday that radio signals and movements indicating another missile test have been detected. Unification Minister Cho said North Korea may not necessarily follow up with another full-fledged provocation, but the South will maintain vigilant and its military is on high alert.

Mr Harry Kim from the University of Texas at Austin warned in a commentary that North Korea has a track record of disrupting major sporting events held in the South. The regime blew up a Korean Air plane in 1987 before the Seoul Olympics, and sank a South Korean vessel during the 2002 Japan-Korea World Cup.

"Seoul sees this event as an opportunity to engage with North Korea and to restore stability in the Korean Peninsula. Contrary to this hope, Kim Jong Un's recklessness and unpredictability could result in provocations before or during the Olympics and a catastrophic path to full-blown conflict in the region."

Dr Chung Eun Sook of the Sejong Institute think-tank also cautioned against pinning too much hope in sports diplomacy. "We tried so many times with sports diplomacy but ended up disappointed. Even if the North Koreans agree to come for Winter Olympics, it is only a sign of friendship, not a sustainable mechanism to resolve the nuclear crisis."