A North Korean Taekwondo demonstration team visiting South Korea could present a way forward to reduce tensions by using sports to reestablish a channel of dialogue and cooperation.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in was on hand for the opening of the World Taekwondo Championship being held in Muju, South Korea where he welcomed the first inter-Korean taekwondo exchange in a decade.
“I believe in power of sports which has been creating peace. I am pleased that the first sports exchange cooperation between two Koreas of this new government has been accomplished through this event,” said President Moon.
The recently elected progressive South Korean leader advocates balancing international economic sanctions imposed on the Kim Jong Un government in the North for its continued nuclear and missile provocations, with non-political outreach, including sports diplomacy, to build trust and facilitate communication.
The World Taekwondo championship being held over the next several days is the largest competition of the sport to be held, with 973 athletes participating from 183 different countries.
Taekwondo is a relatively modern sport based on ancient Korean martial arts that gained prominence in the decades after the division of the Korean Peninsula at the end of World War II. Its development has been complicated by the bitter rivalry between the communist North and capitalist South.
The two Koreas support competing federations that teach different martial arts techniques and developed different competition rules.
The event in Muju is being organized by the South Korean dominated World Taekwondo (recently rebranded from the World Taekwondo Federation — WTF) that emphasizes fast kicks. The federation was recognized by the International Olympic Committee as the official governing body for taekwondo after the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games and became an official medal sport in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
The 32 North Korean athletes attending the competition in South Korea this week are affiliated with the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) that is combat training focused and allows more direct contact including punches to the head and face. ITF athletes generally have not competed in the World Taekwondo Championship or the Olympics because their fighting styles are incompatible.
“It is quite different sports-wise because in ITF sparring lots of punching are allowed, including punches to the face, whereas in the World Taekwondo sparring punches to the face are not allowed and that is a very different strategy,” said Sanku Lewis one of the few ITF martial arts instructors living in Seoul.
At this time there are no plans for the two federations to merge according to World Taekwondo officials.
The 32 members of the North Korean team performed a taekwondo exhibition at the opening ceremony of the championship on Saturday, but the ITF canceled a press conference with North Korean officials.
Choue Chung-won, director of the World Taekwondo, said the North Koreans will stay for the duration of the games.
“They are going to perform again in the closing ceremony so we are going to have a lot of time and chance to have a chat with them to learn more details about the future exchange programs,” he said.
Pyongyang has so far rejected offers of humanitarian aid and request for a reunion of families separated by the division of Korea.
This inter-Korean sports exchange is a small breakthrough that analysts say could open the door to further cooperation.
“While North Korea is not (completely) ready, I think (the North Korean team) is coming to send a message that it is at least willing to try to improve inter-Korean relations,” said Ahn Chan-il, the head of World Institute for North Korean studies.
Chang Ung, a North Korean member of the IOC and Do Jong-hwan, the new South Korean Sports Minister both came to Muju for the opening of the taekwondo championships. They are expected to discuss North Korea's possible participation in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. The South Korean sports minister has proposed forming a joint women's ice hockey team as a show of Korean unity.
President Moon says he hopes North Korea will not only come to the Olympics next year but he also suggested the two Koreas jointly bid to host the 2030 World Cup.
“If the North Korean team participates in PyeongChang Winter Olympics, I think it will greatly contribute to realize the harmony of mankind and improvement of peace in the world which are the value of Olympics," Moon said at the taekwondo championship.
In the United States, public anger at the repressive Kim Jong Un state has increased following the recent tragic death of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was arrested in North Korea and remained in custody for over a year, despite suffering a serious injury that sent him into a coma.
But in South Korea public support for engagement with North Korea is increasing.
Over 70 percent of South Koreans support reestablishing dialogue channels with North Korea according to a recent survey by the National Unification Advisory Council.
Youmi Kim contributed to this report.