Olympic Games chief shrugs off Korean tensions

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London (AFP) – Military tensions on the Korean peninsula should not prevent the nuclear-armed North sending a team to the 2018 Winter Olympics in the South, according to the head of the Games organising committee Lee Hee-Beom.

The former diplomat and trade minister also said the heavily-fortified border between the two Koreas would be opened to allow any North Korean team to make a highly symbolic road crossing into the South.

Because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, the two Koreas remain technically at war.

Their common border is among the most militarised in the world, and land crossings are extremely rare.

Typically, North Korean athletes competing in the South have flown in via Beijing.

“It would be very symbolic as it would be the first time in the name of sport that they come by road,” said organising committee spokesperson Nancy Park. 

Pyongyang has yet to officially confirm whether it will send any athletes to the Winter Games, and a recent surge in tensions across the peninsula has done nothing to raise the hopes of those who would like to see it happen.

Although he favours engagement with the North, newly-elected South Korean President Moon Jae-In warned just this week that there was a “high possibility” of military clashes between the two Koreas.

But Lee, who took over the reins of the organising committee in May last year, said there was plenty of precedent for inter-Korean sporting contact during times of tension. 

“When we hosted the 1988 Olympic Games, the 2002 World Cup and 2011 World Athletics Championships on many occasions we did have some military tensions between North and South so today is not an exception,” Lee told journalists Friday on a visit to London.

He noted that even during the current tensions, the South Korean women’s football team played an Asian Cup qualifying match with the North in Pyongyang last month, while a North Korean women’s ice hockey team played in the South.

Both events passed off “without incident”, he said. “That is the peace of sports.”

North Korea has taken part in several Winter Olympics, but only ever won two medals — a women’s speed skating silver at Innsbruck in 1964, and a bronze in the women’s short-track at Albertville 1992.

Lee said he was in discussions with Olympic officials over including North Korean ice hockey teams and a number of figure skaters in the Pyeongchang Games.

Past Olympics have seen moments of inter-Korean reconciliation.

The teams entered the opening ceremonies for several Games in the 2000s marching under a unified flag, and when two gymnasts from North and South posed together for a selfie at Rio 2016 it was praised as embodying the Olympic spirit.

    <figure><figcaption>This photo taken on February 2, 2017 shows Lee Hee-Beom, president and CEO of the Pyeongchang Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (POCOG), speaking to AFP at his office in Pyeongchang
        <span>Copyright AFP/File Ed JONES</span>
      </figcaption></figure>