The Korean Peninsula has been swept in huge excitement about friendly basketball matches between South and North Korea. The inter-Korean friendly basketball matches, known as the “games of unification,” here in Korea, were held at Ryugyong Chung Ju-yung Gymnasium in Pyongyang on Wednesday and Thursday, with the last such event having been held 15 years ago. The sporting event is invigorating inter-Korean exchanges overall, which have seen major progress as of late. Here is Professor Kim Yong-hyun from the North Korean Studies Department at Dongguk University.
At this year’s PyeongChang Winter Olympics, South and North Korea formed a single women’s ice hockey team. This time, the two sides held friendly basketball matches in Pyongyang. The rare inter-Korean sporting event, especially in North Korea, is certainly a welcome development. South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon even said that it’s been quite a long time for a South Korean sports delegation to visit the North. The highly significant event will hopefully smooth the progress of inter-Korean relations and also the ongoing discussions about the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
From 3:40 p.m. on Wednesday, women’s and men’s teams comprising a mix of South and North Korean athletes played games, with players from the two sides forming two mixed teams, namely, “Team Peace” and “Team Prosperity.” The South and North Korean athletes seemed to feel rather awkward at first, since they had not had any opportunity to play as a team before. But they became attuned to each other quickly to make for some great play. Their harmony and brilliant performances brought wild cheers from North Korean spectators who packed the gymnasium. It was North Korean leader Kim Jong-un who suggested an inter-Korean friendly basketball game during the inter-Korean summit in late April. Professor Kim explains.
During the inter-Korean summit, South Korean President Moon Jae-in proposed a revival of friendly football matches, while North Korean leader Kim Jong-un suggested basketball. South Korea respected Kim’s opinion and eventually chose basketball exchanges. Kim is known as a big fan of basketball. It is said that he played the sport quite often when he was a teenager. I think South and North Korea will expand basketball exchanges in the future.
As far as inter-Korean sports exchanges are concerned, football has played a big part. The Seoul-Pyongyang friendship football matches were held as early as during the Japanese colonial period, with the two cities alternately hosting the games. But at the proposal of the North Korean leader, who was so fond of basketball that he even invited former NBA player Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang, the two Koreas chose basketball as the first sporting event for bilateral exchanges after the April inter-Korean summit. As part of efforts to implement the Panmunjom Declaration adopted at the summit, they held sports talks on June 18 and agreed to hold friendly basketball matches from July 4. Professor Kim explains why this particular date is so significant.
The July 4 declaration issued in 1972 was the first joint declaration between the South and the North. Last month, Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to hold their friendly basketball games on July 4 in honor of the historically important declaration, which stated three principles of unification, namely, independence, peace and national unity. I think the two sides considered the day’s historic significance when setting the date for the sports event.
Sports exchanges have in fact brought the two Koreas together, representing more than just games. Professor Kim continues.
When inter-Korean relations suffered from a political deadlock, sports exchanges would often break it. Through sporting events, including football and basketball, the South and the North rooted for each other and showed consideration for each other. In the process, the political mood would also change. In another famous example, the normalization of U.S.-China relations was inspired by the so-called ping-pong diplomacy. It shows the power of sports diplomacy. For both South and North Korea, sports exchanges are probably one of the most ideal ways to ease political tensions and soften the diplomatic mood on their divided peninsula.
As Professor Kim explained, sports exchanges have contributed to melting icy inter-Korean relations. In the past, South and North Korea held sports talks on the formation of a single Korean team for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1984 LA Olympics. They also discussed the joint hosting of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The two Koreas sent a cheering group to each other’s games for the first time at the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing. Their sports talks in February 1991 led to the creation of a joint Korean table tennis team at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, where the unified Korean team beat China to win the gold medal in the women’s team competition. During the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, athletes of South and North Korea entered the stadium together to impress the entire world. And during the opening ceremony of this year’s PyeongChang Winter Olympics, a South Korean athlete and a North Korean player carried the Olympic torch together to deliver the message of peace. Many are paying attention to how inter-Korean relations will evolve after this week’s basketball games in Pyongyang.
South and North Korea plan to field a joint team in three sports—women’s basketball, canoeing and boat racing—for the Asian Games in Indonesia in August. In addition to the sports exchanges, the two sides are making various preparations for the reunions of separated families, which will be held from August 20 to 26. They have also held general-level military talks to discuss ways to ease cross-border tensions. Without a doubt, a series of talks and exchanges are boding well for overall inter-Korean relations, which will hopefully produce many positive results this summer.
The resumption of inter-Korean sports exchanges at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games was indeed welcome news as was the news of the South, North friendly basketball games. Here’s hoping that the positive momentum in their sports exchanges will promote cross-border cooperation and regional peace.