The agreement between North Korea and South Korea to march under one flag for the 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony on Feb. 9 would seem to suggest that sports could help achieve the ultimate diplomatic breakthrough. After mounting tensions over North Korea’s nuclear escalation put South Korea and its allies on high alert, a unified women’s hockey team and North Korea’s 230-member cheering squad in PyeongChang sound downright Kumbaya.
Perhaps. But these overtures don’t come without potential consequences that could scuttle whatever opening they help create. Take North Korea’s cheerleaders. Known as the “army of beauties” in the south, according to the Korea Herald, they may not be welcomed with open arms by all. “N. Korea’s Army of Cheerleaders Needs (sic) To Stay at Home,” reads one headline in The Chosun Ilbo. “The North Korean cheerleading squad is filled with hand-picked beauties who, aside from their lipstick and smiles, are remembered here for going into hysterics when they saw a picture of their leader hanging from a tree as they were driven through the streets of South Korea,” writes the author, Sonu Jong.
The joint North and South Korea Olympic hockey team is already causing some controversy in the south. Reuters reported that more than 70% of South Koreans oppose forming a team with North Korea, according to a Jan. 11 survey released by the office of the South’s National Assembly Speaker and television network SBS. South Korean players, who just returned from a training camp in the United States, are reportedly “furious” about the prospect of teaming up with strangers. “I think there is damage to our players,” Sarah Murray, coach of the South Korean team, told reporters. “It’s hard because the players have earned their spots and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics. Then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players.”
The Winter Olympics hockey rosters for 2018 are set at 23 players, so a unified team could take spots away from South Korean players who thought they were going to PyeongChang. South Korean sports officials will reportedly ask Olympic organizers to increase the roster size to 30.
For the host nation, the Olympics are the payoff after years of preparation and a significant financial investment. Some experts worry that North Korea’s overtures could eclipse South Korea and lead to a backlash. “North Korea is kind of casting a shadow over the limelight,” says Scott Snyder, director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the just-released book South Korea at the Crossroads.
“On the one hand, I think the South Korean government is delighted to show the world that the Games are going to be safe,” Snyder says, noting that North Korea’s participation would seem to preclude any agitation, nuclear or otherwise, directed towards PyeongChang. “On the flip side, how far do you focus on drawing the North Koreans in?”
As for the U.S. and the broader goal of a diplomatic solution to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Snyder cautions against raising expectations. “So far this is a limited-time only inter-Korean engagement,” he says. “In a way the Olympics are a commercial break from the drama and tensions that have continued to build between the United States and North Korea.”