Katharine Moon on Sports Diplomacy: Winter Olympics 2018

Katharine (Kathy) H.S. Moon is a professor of Political Science and the Wasserman Chair of Asian Studies at Wellesley College, where she has taught since 1993. She is also a nonresident senior fellow at The Brookings Institution Center for East Asia Policy and was the inaugural holder of the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies (2014-2016). She received a B.A., magna cum laude, from Smith College and a doctorate from Princeton University, the Department of Politics. She was born in San Francisco.

Professor Moon’s research encompasses the U.S.-Korea alliance, East Asian politics, inter-Korean relations, democratization, nationalisms, women and gender politics, international migration, identity politics, and comparative social movements in East Asia. She is the author of Protesting America: Democracy and the U.S.-Korea Alliance, which discusses the impact of South Korean democracy on the U.S.-Korea alliance and the institutional and procedural changes needed to improve the management of the alliance. Kathy Moon also authored Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in U.S.-Korea Relations, which explains how foreign policy decisions affect local communities hosting U.S. bases, particularly, women. Her current book project, New Koreans and the Future of Korea’s Democracy, analyzes the impact of demographic change (North Korean defectors and "multicultural" immigrants) in South Korea on Korean democracy and foreign policy. Her research awards include grants from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the U.S. Fulbright Program, the American Association of University Women, the National Bureau of Asian Research, and the Social Science Research Council. She spoke with Jenifer Hanki CMC '20 on February 8th, 2018. 

Photo and biography courtesy of Professor Katharine Moon and Wellesley College.


The decision by North Korea and South Korea to unify the two women’s hockey teams during the Olympic Games surprised many given the recent spike in nuclear tensions. How does sports politics affect the current relations of the two countries?

Sports diplomacy has been around for a long time and is part of “people to people diplomacy.” In this case, sports is being used to create a lot of symbolism signifying unification desires by both Koreas.  I would separate the initial inclination to use sports diplomacy to bring the two countries to the table from the way the negotiations and the outcomes have been made. In the beginning, it was a good idea to use the Olympics as an opportunity to bring down militarized tensions and bad feelings between North and South Korea and North Korea and the United States, but the way that the negotiations have developed, this is sports being somewhat abused for diplomacy and that diplomacy does not have a clear end goal as far as the South Koreans go.  I find it more problematic now than I did at the beginning of the announcement for the joint team.

Is the joint hockey team merely an illusion of cooperation?  Or is this an indication that there may be increased political cooperation between Seoul and Pyongyang? 

Right now we have no idea or what the importance or meaning of sports diplomacy is. Whether or not this attempt at sports diplomacy is an illusion or whether if it’s a facilitator of improved relations, is dependent on many factors –– some of which cannot be controlled.  Number one, will the North Korean political elites that come with the delegation such as the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong Nam and a couple other people who are not yet confirmed, will the political elites as part of the North Korean delegations be coming with an official message to the South Korean government about wanting to seriously start reconciliation talks.  I don’t think that North Korea is willing to put up their nuclear ambitions on the table for negotiations. 

I’m not even looking at that big of a picture.  Let’s look just at another big picture: will the North Koreans bring a message about wanting to improve substantive aspects of their relationship including family reunions and regularized meetings between the countries’ military officials, (which used to happen in the past to prevent miscalculation and miscommunication)? Will the North seek or feel out economic opportunities for cooperation or really for getting economic gains?  Will the North explicitly divide the U.S.-South Korea alliance by seeking economic alliances that violate the U.N. sanctions, U.S. unilateral sanctions and South Korean unilateral sanctions.  If the North Koreans come to South Korea with some purpose to engage in substantive negotiations, even if they take a long time, I think that their participation will have a positive impact, as long as their requests are reasonable, meaning that they are not aimed at forcing South Korea to violate U.N. sanctions.  These are all contingencies on how well or not, how valuable or not sports diplomacy might be. 

Another contingency of this situation is the safety of the North Korean athletes and the entire delegation.  I am very concerned that the South Koreans have been willing to allow so many North Koreans to come en mass to this event.  We are talking about close to 500 people who have nothing to do with the actual athleticism; so only 22 athletes, more than 22 coaches, more than 20 to 22 journalists, 2300 to 30 cheering squad members, 130-member orchestra, and a 10-member pop band, in addition to the political elites who will lead the team. That is a truckload, no, shipload of people! And they need to be watched, and cared for and monitored for 24 hours a day close to a three-week period.  If the North Koreans feel that this has turned into a circus, then there is quite a lot that can be claimed that goes wrong.  It is utterly unnecessary to have so many North Koreans in the Olympics, but it is a way for the North Koreans to push their agenda and demonstrate their soft power.  Even the Japanese Ministry has called this something like a “charm offensive.” It is also a way for the South Koreans, I think mistakenly, to get North Korean buy-in. The South Koreans need to be tougher in regards to setting harder negotiation goals and boundaries. They’re letting in superfluous publicity measures which increase the burden on South Korean security officials, police, also the costs of having them stay.  This is a huge burden for South Korea.  Securing the health and safety for the 500 or so North Koreans and monitoring their every action, after all, there is no mutual trust between the two sides, is going to be very difficult.  If any aspect of their stay goes wrong, then the North Koreans can easily make claims that it was some deliberate attempt by the South to sabotage the North Korean visit and athletes. 

The third problem is that there will be protests –– South Korean protesters against the North Korean regime at the Olympics. We have already seen this when the initial North Korean delegation came a few weekends ago to check out the situation and they arrived in Seoul, just to change trains, there were vocal protests and burning of a Kim Jong-Un effigy.  The North Korean government stated how horrible this was.  In the case that there are protests, the North Korean regime can then use this as excuse against negotiations. 

Why did the South Korean president face a strong public backlash over the decision to unify the two women’s ice hockey team? How significant is public sentiment about the Olympics for Korean domestic politics?

There are concerns that the North Koreans will do another nuclear test or missile test, and that would be a no brainer, a complete failure for sports diplomacy.  So far the negotiations have affected domestic politics negatively against the current South Korean administration.  Around 75-80 percent show that people do not support the joint team and the forced efforts of symbolic unifications.  This will make it tougher for the Moon administration, for its inter-Korea policy, if something goes wrong during the Olympics, or if the North Korean government continues to pursue its nuclear development.  The Moon administration will receive backlash if anything goes wrong.

President Moon Jae-In says that North Korea will be less likely to conduct missile or nuclear tests during the Olympics because of the joint women’s hockey team.  He also has said that he hopes to use this historic occasion to create momentum for negotiations between North Korea and the U.S.  Given North Korea’s extensive testing of nuclear capabilities over the past year, is President Moon Jae-In convincing? Can we expect a productive dialogue between Seoul, Pyongyang, and Washington any time soon?

I don’t think the negotiations as they have developed are helping the U.S. and they are hurting the U.S.-South Korea relations.  I do not blame North Korea, but rather I criticize the South Korean government because they are the ones as the host to have set the boundaries and the limitations.  The image the South Korean government is creating for the United States, Japan, and the world through the negotiations is one of letting North Korea run the show and highlighting the influence of North Korea over the South.  This is the wrong message, one that shouldn’t be sent by any government.  I know that the officials of South Korea continue to say that the U.S.-South Korea relations are strong and that they stand together, but if we watch from the outside, the kind of circus-like symbolic unification has allowed North Korea to steal the show.  It’s hard to say it’s not affecting the alliance negatively. That doesn’t mean that ultimate cooperation is wavering, but the signaling is getting mixed up.

Some analysts suggest that Kim Jong-Un’s reason for supporting the joint team is to build better relations with South Korea in order to enlist South Korea’s support for lifting the crippling U.S. sanctions. Do you agree? More broadly, could this be a window of opportunity for North Korea to augment its power in East Asia?

The honest answer is: Who knows?  What I can say with confidence is that the first beneficiary is the North Korean regime towards its domestic society, the government will spread its visit to the Olympics through some news broadcast as a huge win for the people. They will make the regime sound like they have such importance in the world and respect and regard for the North Koreans and the world was waiting for them and the world has invited them.  They will pose as a super power to their own people.  The second impact is that I don’t think they’re going to fool anyone in the region. Even if South Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, South East Asians watch and they think that, “The orchestra is good! The cheering squad is so attractive and so coordinated! The pop singing group is so lively,” I don’t think that anyone will change their view on the political regime. They’re not going to win new friends over in the region or get past the sanctions so easily.  If they are able to get South Korea to advocate the softening of sanctions or at least to reduce if not eliminate its unilateral sanctions against the North, then they will have had some success.  If for example South Korea agrees to explore the re-opening of the Kaesong industrial complex, (the joint complex that was shut down in 2016), if South Korea agrees to give fuel and other kinds of economic assistance then North Koreans would be chipping away at the international sanctions regime.

The South Koreans, the Chinese, the Japanese, Americans, the Russians should all be testing out in different ways how serious North Korea is about developing its economy.  I had hoped that the start of these talks could be about probing the seriousness of North Korea wanting to develop its economy and sticking to the two-pronged policy called byungjin.  In translation, this policy means, “parallel progress.”  What this means for Kim Jong-Un’s regime as his hallmark policy is that he wants to continue to pursue nuclear power and to improve the people’s livelihood. This phase of the nuclear program is now complete and now they can move on to other aspects of the country’s interests.  Analysts have been looking at whether this policy is just in name only or whether this policy truly aims to develop the North Korean economy.  These talks should be aimed at probing this policy’s effectiveness and seriousness as well as discussing the gradual removal of sanctions over time. If North Korea is truly serious about economic development, then the international community should try to help North Korea in their endeavors. This would mean the North Koreans have to show that they are committed. This is critical if the North Korea is to improve relations with South Korea, and I don’t think that South Korea is trying hard to probe this policy.

Will the warming of relations between the North and South Korea make U.S. efforts to pressure North Korea more difficult?  How important is the US for decreasing tensions in the Korean Peninsula?

So it’s hard to give a straight answer on that because of the different contexts of the United States. For some serious members of Congress, some senior officials of the State Department and the intelligence community, de-escalating tensions in the Korean Peninsula is urgent, and a few diplomats have worked hard toward that goal. .  he real answer as to why I cannot give a straight answer is as simple as: Trump. He gets off on the escalatory aspects of both rhetoric and military buildup.  He wants to see the U.S. military buildup aimed at North Korea and to scare North Korea. Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson have worked very hard to show the public that the U.S. is not conducting any kind of activities that will lead to military conflict.  But at the same time, they must pay some kind of lip service to Trump’s demands of preparing for military engagement. We do have U.S. troops in South Korea and have war ships in the seas near the Korean Peninsula.  This is a smart thing to do when dealing with an enemy nuclear power. But Trump also wants to see this military buildup and we don’t know if it’s part of a   long-term strategy or whether we whether de-escalating tensions is the actual policy of the United States.  De-escalation is very important but there’s just too much policy contradiction within the United States’ current administration.

According to a 2017 Unification Perception Survey created by the Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies, 13.6 percent of South Korean respondents believe that unification is possible “within 10 years,” and 53.8 percent of South Koreans surveyed believe that reunification is necessary. What is the likelihood of reunification of the Korean peninsula in the medium or long term? Is reunification necessary for peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula or is the current division sustainable indefinitely?

That is the toughest question of them all…

I would say the South Korean public, particularly the younger generations, do not care very much about reunification.  They generally enjoy the idea as a sentiment, but when it comes to paying for it out of their own pocketbooks through tax money and competing with North Koreans for job spots and the universities, which are already so competitive… No.  Unification would create personal obstacles for a lot of people.  Many younger people hear from the teens to the thirties that the North Koreans differ way too much in culture from themselves. For those who are in the younger cohorts from the teens to the thirties, unification is not a necessity, unification is not desirable. It is going to be incredibly costly both economically and personally in terms of jobs and personal opportunities. 

Is unification necessary? I myself am in a process of assessing that question because until recently I thought that the two Koreas have to keep the goal of unification alive.  The two Koreas will never be able to fare well in the long-run unless they are rejoined.  You would have a joint population of 75 million people which would be competitive with some of the larger European countries, and 75 million people in the East Asian region would be a much larger political presence vis-à-vis Japan, vis-à-vis Southeast Asia, and of course China.  Over time, if we have a peaceful reunification (which could take decades) with an integrated economy and the joining of North Korea’s natural resources--as North Korea has very rich natural resources and South Korea is extremely resource poor --with South Korea’s incredible human capital, technological competencies and and other skills, we would be able to see a formidable economy not only in the region but the world. 

In addition, the joining of the two militaries would equally be formidable, as the South Korean military is very well-trained and the North’s is tough and one the largest.

But recently, I am considering the practicality of having this separation continue, maybe not in perpetuity, but not making reunification such a big cloud or umbrella hanging over people’s heads. It seems like it’s a rainbow that makes people chase after the gold that doesn’t exist. But in reality, it’s a huge burden and could potentially bring about a lot of disasters. If we could take a poll around the world, I would say that the majority of the people would not desire a violent reunification. But both sides want to maintain sovereignty.  Even if you had a Korean Peninsula with less belligerent leaders, even on the North side, and even if the Kim family were not in power with a non-dynastic family in power, the big question is: How are the two Koreas going to share political power? To me, this is the real concern.  North Koreans do not want to become second-rate citizens to South Koreans.  The North Koreans want to rule their own portion of the Peninsula and will fight for political and economic resources from South Korea. And the other question is: Will South Korea go along? That’s not going to happen.







Jenifer Hanki CMC '20Student Journalist

Featured Image by Kyodo News Photo Service [Public domain], via New York Daily Intelligencer.

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