“Sports and politics don’t mix,” former U.S. Olympian Eric Heiden once said.
They may not mix, but that doesn’t stop them from being frequently tossed into a blender anyway.
With the start of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea just over a month away, political efforts are underway to try to ensure the Games will be free from political tensions involving North Korea.
News reports Wednesday indicated that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had reopened a cross-border communication channel with South Korea for the first time in nearly two years in response to overtures from the South.
On Tuesday, South Korea made an offer of holding high-level talks with North Korea to seek ways to co-operate on the Winter Olympics. The offer came after Kim, in his New Year’s address on Monday, said he would be willing to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
However, even as the two Koreas seemed to be trying to thaw the ice between the two nations, political tensions were heightened over the North’s ongoing nuclear weapons program. In his Monday address, Kim also pointed out that he has a “nuclear button” on his desk and noted that all U.S. territory is within striking distance of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Of course, that prompted a response from U.S. President Donald Trump, who boasted that his nuclear button was bigger than Kim’s.
An Associated Press story Wednesday said some outside observers suggest Kim could be trying to use improved relations with South Korea to drive a wedge between the South and the U.S. in an effort to counter newly toughened sanctions against the North because of its nuclear and missile programs.
South Korea’s interest in reaching out to the North is likely aimed at avoiding problems during the Winter Games. If North Korea is involved in the Olympics, it will be unlikely to seek to disrupt the event in some way. With ticket sales for the Games reportedly lagging, the South is probably desperate to do whatever it can to keep the Olympics from being a failure, something that would be a blow to South Korea both in terms of reputation and economics.
But working out some sort of Winter Olympics co-operation between the North and South won’t be easy. There are a number of political obstacles standing in the way, and Kim’s determination to continue his country’s nuclear program is the biggest.
With just over a month to go before the Winter Games are set to begin, there’s a lot of diplomatic work that will need to be done. One positive step toward that end came Thursday when the White House announced that Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have agreed to “de-conflict the Olympics and our military exercises” so the countries “can focus on ensuring the security of the Games.”
Sports and politics may not mix, but let’s hope they can at least coexist long enough to ensure a Winter Olympics free from major incidents.