As CP pointed out to me today, international sport has taken the place of religion when it comes to dealing with international political issues. How so? In the middle of the nineteenth century in Prussia, the only language in which one could engage in political issues was religion, or more specifically theology. This was due to the heavy censorship over political debate in Prussia, so all of the issues were expressed in and through religion. The youthful Marx and Engels were no exception.
In an analogous fashion, international sport – for better or worse – seems to have taken on that role. For example, Russian athletes cannot be banned for overtly political reasons, so the excuse of ‘doping’ is used. And of course, the complex issues of Korean unification can be broached much more readily through the avenue of the Winter Olympics than other forms. Obviously, these images are as much social and political as they are focused on sport, but they take place in the context and language of sport.
The combined Korea team, under the ‘Korea is One’ flag, which raised by far the loudest applause.
So far, this sort of thing has happened before, albeit not at such an important juncture. But the arrival of Kim Yo Jong is another story. She is the younger sister of Kim Jong Un and a serious politician in her own right.
The handshake between her and Moon Jae-in, president of the south, as the united Korea team came out during the opening ceremony was powerful in its symbolism.
Alongside Kim Yo Jong is the president of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong Nam.
He was received warmly indeed by Moon Jae-in before the games.
And here is a toast with Moon Jae-in, Kim Yong Nam and the Olympic chair.
This first part of this video is fascinating, since it speaks volumes about the common ritual of who should sit in the most important seat. Initially, Kim Yong Nam suggests Kim Yo Jong should sit there. But she pauses and insists he should sit there, especially in light of his seniority (he is 90). At last, after back and forth, he takes the seat, as he knows he should – but not before umpteen signals of humility.
Last but by no means least, the north has sent no less than 229 members of a cheer squad, replete with instruments.
Their chant: the simple but powerful ‘We are one’.
You cannot help thinking that Kim Jong Un and the leadership team are becoming quite masterful at international leadership. Meanwhile, the USA’s representative at Pyeongchang, Mike Pence, was made to look like a frustrated and petulant little boy who could not get his way. He refused to attend the welcoming dinner and did not stand and cheer as the united Korea team came out. Unlike the leaders of the two Koreas:
Things move fast in this environment. Kim Yo Jong has by now delivered a written invitation from her bother to Moon Jae-in: a personal meeting between the two of them at the ‘earliest date’ possible.
Moon is said to have been positive but cautious: ‘Let us make it happen by creating the necessary conditions in the future’.
To add to the picture, the entries by Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam in the visitors book at the south’s presidential office express positive hopes:
While Kim Yong Nam (left) wrote of the Korean people’s desire to be reunited, Kim Yo Jong (right) wrote: ‘I expect Pyongyang and Seoul to get closer in the hearts of our (Korean) people and the future of unification and prosperity will be advanced’.
Given that the north’s policy has always been consistent regarding reunification, but that the south’s approach has lurched back and forth depending on political circumstances, the ball is clearly in Moon’s court. Will he make the most of the opportunity on the 70th anniversary of the separation of the two Koreas so that serious progress is made to reunification – as this DPRK joint conference make clear? Or will he waste the chance? Perhaps a small signal may be found in the rebuttal of Japan’s urging to resume military preparations – the so-called ‘war games’ with the USA and South Korea – for invading the north. After the militant Abe suggested this, the southern Koreans told him to get lost, since he was interfering in Korean sovereignty.
Of course, if the two parts of Korea do reunite, the urgent question is what in the world are US soldiers doing occupying one half of the Korean peninsula.