Putting aside political differences, South Korea and North Korea will form a united Korean women’s ice hockey team to compete at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The team will be comprised of 23 South Korean athletes and 12 North Korean athletes—out of a total 22 North Korean athletes competing in the PyeongChang Olympics. As a condition, three North Korean members of the hockey team will play in every match. In addition to competing with a unified hockey team, the two Koreas will march together during the opening and closing ceremonies, holding one flag that shows the entire Korean peninsula. “Arirang,” a traditional Korean folk song, will be played as the national anthem for the two Koreas (Huffington Post Korea, “North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympic Games and a unified ROK-DPRK team have been confirmed,” 01.21.2018).
The news comes at a time of heightened tensions between North Korea and the United States. With North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un expressing a favorable attitude toward South Korea and a hostile one toward the United States, South Korean President Moon Jae-in seems to have been trapped in a foreign policy dilemma. Should he shake hands with Donald Trump in a collaborative security effort against Kim Jong-un—echoing former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s cooperation with Barack Obama—or pursue the traditional pro-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) policies of his party?
Quite clearly, the decision to call for a unified hockey team suggests that Moon aims to pursue policies sympathetic to the DPRK, continuing the work of previous presidents of the Democratic Party, such as Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. By doing so, Moon would be undoing the anti-DPRK policies of two previous presidents of South Korea and marking another of the many turns in the history of South Korea’s DPRK policy. His pro-DPRK approach would potentially bring to South Korea the benefit of increased economic and military independence from the United States.
However, I would like to argue against President Moon’s efforts to politicize the Olympics in order to further his pro-DPRK policy. The most notable problem associated with unifying the women’s hockey team is the loss of the South Korean identity. The PyeongChang Olympics will be hosted by South Korea, not North Korea, and it is therefore ludicrous that there would not be a prominent, independent representation of the South Korean flag and national anthem in the ceremonies.
In addition, unifying the team means accepting North Korean players in place of South Koreans who have worked for years to attain their Olympic spots. Hence, while the unified team would benefit North Korean players and North Korea’s efforts to represent itself in the Olympics—and perhaps President Moon’s pro-DPRK policy as well—it is the South Korean athletes that will be excluded who will have to pay the price.
Even the players who will be included on the team could unexpectedly suffer. The coach of the team has stated that the “sudden decision to create a joint team would cause ‘damage,’ in the team” because players were not consulted in the decision and, at this point, do not have enough time to develop any effective chemistry with the North Korean players (Korea Exposé, “PyeongChang Olympics: S. Korea’s Pro-Unification Cheerleaders,” 01.19.2018). Thus, Moon’s foreign policy threatens to undercut South Korea’s performance potential in its own Olympics.
Furthermore, questions remain over the sporting fairness of the unified team. The International Olympic Committee allowed 35 players on the united Korean team, far more than the 23 players in a normal team and in all other teams. Thomas Bach, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), stated that the IOC has been making efforts since 2014 to help North Korea participate in PyeongChang (The Hankyoreh, “How did the IOC have the power to allow 35 players in the unified ROK-DPRK team?” 01.20.2018). Would the international audience consider legitimate the unified team, which has been put together by bending of rules and norms and created for Olympic promotion and multiple political agendas?
The Olympics is supposed to be an opportunity for people to unite along national lines and proudly represent their unique cultures. Yet, merging the women’s ice hockey team brings unnecessary internal disputes, which are further exacerbated by present geopolitical circumstances. Even if all South Korean citizens and women’s ice hockey players were to support the politics undergirding this decision, a one-time united team is unlikely to bring about significant political progress. Therefore, Moon’s Olympic politics is, ironically, politically inconsequential and problematic in every other aspect.
Moreover, I would also like to argue against President Moon’s political goal itself. Achieving more hospitable relations—and perhaps reunification—with North Korea may have seemed reasonable 10 years ago. North Korea with Kim Jong-un at the helm, however, is more unpredictable and dangerous to international peace than it was before. Hence, it is foolish for South Korea to cooperate with the villain and sacrifice its long, historic relationship with the United States, which has a more benign global reputation and influence on South Korea than does DPRK, and also is much more powerful than North Korea. South Korea has already experimented with helping North Korea; the result was not a sustainable political relationship but rather one-way economic support from South Korea to North Korea, which the latter never paid back.
In addition, the idea of reunification is a terrible fiction at this point. Not only is it incredibly difficult to achieve due to the external pressure, but it also would lead to disastrous consequences if it were to happen. During the 70 years of living apart from one another, the two Koreas have developed vastly different cultural and political identities. How will North Koreans and South Koreans mingle with such polarizing ideals? It would not be much of an exaggeration to state that the two Koreas are the two most different places on Earth. In today’s world, there’s no reason to hide South Korea’s distinct identity in its own Olympics and attempt to change it with reunification.
The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has voiced strong support for a unified team, stating, “Considering the exceptional circumstances of the two Koreas and the opportunities provided by the 2018 PyeongChang Olympic Games, the South Korean women’s ice hockey single team positively reflects the ideal of the Olympics, which embodies social development and peace through sports” (Huffington Post Korea, “The IIHF has announced its position on the unified ROK-DPRK team,” 01.19.2018).
This statement belies the extent to which this Olympics has become politicized. The Olympics can symbolically promote peace and international interaction, but is it moral to let a certain political agenda dictate a definition of “social development” with which other members of the international arena may not agree? If Moon’s sudden, autocratic decision did not benefit IOC’s promotion of Olympics and IIHF’s promotion of ice hockey, would they be citing Olympic values within the rhetoric of peace and championing a decision that benefits North Korea, a global threat? I think not.