Koreas shared stadiums but little elseThe Daegu Universiade ended on Sunday, but debates here about North Korea’s actions during the games that had little to do with sports go on.
The Universiade became a catalyst for debate on the southern part of the Korean peninsula, the only half where free speech is possible. That’s one of the beautiful byproducts of a democratic country.
It wasn’t always so free. No sirree. There was a time, and not so long ago, mind you, when you had to look over your shoulder before criticizing the government. While North Korea has its notorious work camps for those who defy its leaders, South Korea had its own ways of teaching those who dared to express an opposing voice.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s people joked that being branded as anti-government granted you a free trip to “Namsan,” where the National Intelligence Service had a bureau. When my family returned from Germany in the early 80s, my father ― who had seen the Gwangju massacre on TV ― asked our relatives about it. To his surprise, none of them had heard of it. They all thought my father had spun a yarn.
After the Iron Curtain fell, those former communist countries aligned themselves based on national interest rather than ideology. In the middle of this cataclysmic change were the two Koreas who suddenly found that though the 38th parallel hadn’t moved, other changes had occurred.
The North has found itself increasingly isolated, as even a blood brother like China has opted for a free-market economy and restored ties with once-sworn enemies like the South. While in the North changes have come from the outside, in the South change seems to have been an internal process; the 1992 election of a president who didn’t have a military background really got the democracy movement going.
Fifteen years ago, it would have been hard to imagine folks debating on TV whether the North’s actions, and the reactions of the South Korean government, were appropriate. In those days, an “us against them” mentality prevailed.
The 2003 Universiade provided us a glimpse of how far apart the two Koreas are. Many people were probably taken aback when the North Korean cheerleading squad jumped off their buses to retrieve a placard showing a picture of Kim Jong-il and Kim Dae-jung shaking hands just because “our dear great general” was getting soaked by rain.
One of the squad’s chants was “We are one,” but having witnessed the gulf between the two Koreas, perhaps “We want to be one” is a better choice. The questions of why and how should also be clearly answered by both countries, because right now everyone is chasing a mirage.
It took South Korea half a decade to engage the North from a different perspective. For the North to reach even that plateau, it will take at least that much time if not longer.
Through sports we can and should continue a dialogue. Political propaganda will never disappear completely, but at least for international events, we should curb its effects; it just takes too much from the game.
If visits from the North Korean cheerleading squad become routine, it could serve as a test to gauge the winds of change in the North. The day they pass another rain-soaked placard of their “beloved leader,” whoever he might be, without even looking at it and instead fawn over a rainbow in the sky, there will be hope.
by Brian Lee