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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Heavy Lifting in Pyongyang

by | September 19th, 2013 | 07:00 am

The Rodman show has overshadowed another interesting sports story on the peninsula, one that reflects the current combination of bellicosity and make-nice on the part of the leadership in Pyongyang. The Asian Cup and Interclub Weightlifting Championship in Pyongyang marked the first occasion where South Korean athletes—the team totaled 41–carried their national flag along with its official name (대한민국, Daehan-minkuk) in North Korea. More significantly, it was the first time when the South Korean national anthem was played during a flag raising ceremony in Pyongyang as two South Korean athletes won gold and silver medals on the first day of the competition; the Wall Street Journal provides a screenshot.

The breakthrough win was a walk-over; according to AP (but missed by Yonhap), the two South Koreans in the junior competition in the 85 kilogram (187.3 pounds) class were the only ones entered and thus were guaranteed gold and silver between them. But the symbolism was pretty heavy when the crowd in Ryugyong Chung Ju-yung Indoor Stadium stood as two South Korean flags were raised and the national anthem played; pictures of North Koreans standing up in front of the flags made the media.

Interestingly, the stadium itself was named after the late founder of Hyundai, an early proponent of engagement; Hyundai built the stadium back in 2003.

As far as flags and national anthems go, the most recent North Korean sports entourage in South Korea occurred back in July when the North Korean women’s soccer team competed with South Korea in Seoul’s World Cup stadium. The North beat the South 2-1.

What does it all mean? We have tended to be skeptical of such gestures; they carry a poison pill. A regime that shows little intention of negotiating on anything of substance is portraying itself both at home and abroad as reasonable, a “responsible nuclear power.” But the propaganda of demonization is the alternative, so are we really worse off? The short answer is simple: “no.” Moreover, who knows what happens in the conversations—if allowed—between Northern and Southern athletes? When people talk, they reveal themselves in unexpected ways; we expect that redounds to Southern advantage if only for the appeal of the worldly. As we always say, get people in, get people out.