International relations are often said to be all about sober realpolitik. So it may have come as a surprise that it was the power of sport that provided the opening for North and South Korea to consider dialogue rather than confrontation.
It was only a few months ago that political tensions had rapidly escalated – including missile launches, nuclear tests and bellicose rhetoric – and military confrontation on the Korean Peninsula looked likely. Thankfully, the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang helped ease the tensions.
When the leaders of North and South Korea meet this week, it will be only the third such summit since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Such moments of hope are rare in our increasingly polarised world.
2018 Winter Olympics – in pictures
2018 Winter Olympics – in pictures
The referee takes a bird’s eye view during the Men’s preliminary round match between USA and Slovakia
Italy’s Michela Moioli takes gold in the Women’s Snowboard Cross
Tonga’s Pita Taufatofua competes during the Men’s 15km Cross Country Freestyle
Hanna Huskova of Belarus takes gold in Women’s Aerials
Britain’s Lizzy Yarnold gives a thumbs up at the end of her Skeleton run
Eric Frenzel of Germany takes gold in the Men’s Individual 10km Final
Mikaela Shiffrin of the United States takes gold during the Ladies’ Giant Slalom
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Netherlands’ Kjeld Nuis takes gold in the Men’s 1,500m Speed Skating event
Aris Messinisaris/AFP/Getty Images
Natalie Geisenberger of Germany takes gold in the Women’s Luge event
Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany during the Figure Skating Pair event
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
France’s Pierre Vaultier celebrates after winning the Men’s Snowboard Cross big final at the Phoenix Park
Italy’s Joseph Luke Cecchini on his sledge at the start of his run in the Men’s Skeleton Heat 1
Roland Harrison/Action Plus via Getty Images
Britain’s Andrew Musgrave in the Mens 15km + 15km Skiathlon
Norwegian Men’s Curling team wear hearts on their trousers for Valentine’s Day
The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
Elise Christie of Great Britain crashes during the Ladies’ 500m Short Track Speed Skating final
Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
USA’s Mirai Nagasu competes in the figure skating team event women’s single skating free skating. Her routine included a ‘triple axel’ – a notoriously difficult move to pull off
Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images
Gold medalist Shaun White of the United States throws his helmet as he celebrates after his first round during Snowboard Men’s Halfpipe Final on day five of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. White went on to win the gold medal
David Ramos/Getty Images
Chloe Kim of the United States reacts to her first run score during the Snowboard Ladies’ Halfpipe Final on day four. Kim later won gold becoming the youngest ever medalist in the discipline aged 17
David Ramos/Getty Images
Dom Parsons won Team GB’s first medal of the games in the men’s skeleton
Parsons’ medal was the first in the skeleton for 70 years
Goggia clinched the gold medal by just 0.09s ahead of Ragnhild Mowinckel
Eve Muirhead swung the match against Canada in Britain’s favour at a crucial time to seal victory
Elizabeth Swaney completed jump after jump without performing a trick in the ski halfpipe
White pulled off back-to-back 1440s to clinch the victory
White recorded a score of 97.75 with his final run to win gold
Lizzy Yarnold of Great Britain celebrates after winning the gold medal during the Women’s Skeleton on day eight of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games
Gerard won the gold medal with his third and final run
Belarus’ Iryna Kryuko takes gold in the Women’s 4x6km Biathlon
Alina Zagitova, an Olympic Athlete of Russia, on her way to winning the Ladies Single Figure Skating at the Gangneung Ice Arena
The historic moment of the Olympic Winter Games was when the athletes from North and South Korea marched together as one team at the opening ceremony behind the Korean Unification Flag. This moment did not happen by chance. It was the result of a long process of negotiations and high-level government engagement that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began back in 2014, starting with a special programme to support North Korean athletes to qualify for the winter games.
But the political tensions on the Korean Peninsula escalated significantly during the second half of 2017. A North Korean nuclear test and missile launches, followed by countermeasures, including sanctions by the US and the United Nations, called into question whether the Olympic Winter Games on the Korean Peninsula could take place at all. The IOC intensified its diplomatic efforts with all sides, always maintaining strict political neutrality and emphasising the fundamental mission of the Olympic Games to bring all people together in peaceful competition.
During this time, the IOC kept the door open on the sporting side for the participation of North Korean athletes. We extended deadlines, assured them of special invitations and continued our support programme for the athletes.
On 20 January 2018, the IOC initiated the “Olympic Korean Peninsula Declaration” with both governments and the two National Olympic Committees. We agreed that North Korean athletes should participate in Pyeongchang, and that there should be the joint march behind one flag at the opening ceremony, as well as the formation of a unified women’s ice hockey team.
Cynics may decry these decisions as naive. But if such naivety can now lead to peace negotiations on 27 April, then I am happy to be given such a label. When Pierre de Coubertin revived the modern Olympic Games over 100 years ago, his idea that sport could bring people together in an age of nationalism was viewed by many as optimistic. But as the Olympic Games can still bring together rivals and enemies in 2018, his once-mocked concept continues to be compelling.
Having met both leaders from North and South Korea recently, I believe there are grounds for cautious optimism ahead of the talks on 27 April. In my meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he said that “the once frozen North-South relations greeted a dramatic thawing season with the Olympics as a momentum and it was totally attributable to the efforts of the IOC which offered an opportunity and paved a path for it”. He confirmed North Korea’s commitment to participating in future Olympic Games.
The South Korean leader, Moon Jae-in, also supported the participation of North Korea in Pyeongchang because he saw this as a chance to pause the spiral of confrontation and shift the momentum towards peace.
The Olympic Games have opened the door to a positive, long-term resolution. Politicians have now taken the first steps and are about to sit down together at the same table and talk. They enter these talks soon after enjoying the shared success of the Olympic experience and I am confident that they are determined to build on this momentum.
Thomas Bach is the president of the International Olympic Committee
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