What North and South Korea Marching Under the Same Olympic Flag Really Means

When North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced the country’s intentions to send athletes to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, everyone was surprised. North Korea’s attendance ranks as historic for several reasons. But he also announced another sign of unity that makes this year’s Winter Olympics even more special for the two technically warring countries.

Jong Un announced the decision during his New Year’s address

Kim Jong Un giving a statement at a desk with books behind him
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced his intention to send athletes to the Winter Olympics in January. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

South Korea’s newly elected president, Moon Jae In, brought up the idea of North Korea participating early in his presidency, Business Insider reports. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un also expressed interest during his New Year’s address. At the same time, he threatened the United States with the infamous “nuclear button.” Regardless, some experts hope the talks will help ease tensions between North Korea and the rest of the world.

Next: It has been a long time since the North demonstrated its athletic prowess in this way.

North Korea will participate for the first time in eight years

North Korean cheering squad applause during the welcoming ceremony in Daegu
North Korean cheering squad applause during the welcoming ceremony at the Asian Games. | Kim Jae Hwan/AFP/Getty Images

According to The New York Times, this year marks the first time North Korea participates in the Winter Games in eight years. It has sent athletes to every Summer Olympics since 1972, except the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul. The North did not only skip the 1988 Seoul games; it also tried to attack them. Agents planted a bomb on a Korean Air passenger plane in 1987, a move the South alleged meant to sabotage the Olympics. This year, the two countries came to an agreement in talks between Cho Myoung Gyon, the South Korean cabinet minister in charge of relations, and his North Korean counterpart, Ri Son Kwon.

Next: Some say that agreement means big strides for the warring factions.

The move demonstrates a shift in policy

barbed wire and a wooden fence with a sunset behind it
Barbed wire along a border between North and South Korea. | AFP/Getty Images

While South and North Korea have struggled diplomatically, South Korea also has to appease the United States. “[President Moon has] been pursuing a parallel diplomatic policy,” said Katharine Moon, a professor of Asian studies at Wellesley College. “Basically, it’s like having two partners, and you have to constantly dance with both of them, while at the same time not losing your own stance and your own posture.” While the deal provides some relief, the Koreas are not out of the woods yet.

Next: How did the United States play into all this?

The U.S. has not exactly helped, but it has not hurt either

Donald Trump speaks to press
Donald Trump has made several statements on North Korea, both official and off-the-cuff. | Jim Watson/ AFP/Getty Images

The deal came after two years of diplomatic silence between the two Koreas, the LA Times writes. “While they are competing in the Olympics, they will continue producing fissile material to make nuclear weapons,” said national security adviser Chun Yung Woo. Moon sought the agreement to temporarily halt escalating tensions between the North and South. The U.S. has not exactly helped ease them.

The president knows people in the South are divided over how to handle North Korea. Trump, in addition, seems pretty skeptical about resolving the crisis diplomatically. “The deterrence by the United States and the unpredictability of Trump have worked in conjunction to pressure North Korea to come to the negotiation table,” said Go Myong Hyun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

Next: Olympic participation could help with other issues, as well.

Sending athletes to the games may ease other tensions

North Korean cheerleaders show their support to their team before the quarter-final match against Germany in the FIFA Women's Football World Cup in Wuhan, in 2007
North Korean cheerleaders show their support to their team at a FIFA Women’s Football World Cup game in 2007. | Liu Jin /AFP/Getty Images

South Korea remains optimistic about the announcement, even after decades of war. It hopes the talks will additionally lead to other moves, like reunions of citizens from both sides. Jae In remains a strong supporter of dialogue with North Korea. Moon’s government says the North appears less likely to conduct a missile test during the Olympics. That’s not only because its athletes will be living there for a time. Jong Un also continues to care deeply about his country’s public image on the world stage.

Next: The U.S. remains skeptical.

Trump does not seem convinced about the diplomacy

South and North Korea meet to discuss Olympics
South Korea’s Unification Minister Cho Myung Gyun (R) shakes hands with North Korean chief delegate Ri Son Gwon | AFP/Getty Images

Even though North Korea has few athletes with the chops to compete, the country intends to send its famed cheerleaders, as well. It will also send a 180-member orchestra to the games, which remains closely tied to North Korean propaganda. For many in the Koreas, the inclusion seems to point to a bright future. Trump’s national security adviser, however, dismissed the talks between the Koreas as “diversions.” Secretary of State
Rich Tillerson additionally did not rule out a military strike on North Korea.

Next: Despite the U.S. response, the two countries will unite, for a time.

The two countries have been at war since 1950

US President Barack Obama looks through binoculars towards North Korea from Observation Post Ouellette
The two countries have fought for decades. | Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

North Korea and South Korea have technically remained at war since 1950. The two will march under a unified flag at the Olympics, in a rare show of solidarity. The Koreas also intend to engage in joint training at a ski resort and form a joint women’s ice hockey team, according to the North Korea-focused news website NK News. While it does not mean the end of tensions, it does look like a step in the right direction. “We are the same nation,” said Paik Hak Soon, who directs the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute, a South Korean think tank. “We have to eventually achieve unification.”

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