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North Korea and the Case for Athletic Diplomacy

Over the last 60 years, ideological differences between the East and West have often spilled over onto the field of play. The conflicts between  communist U.S.S.R. and democratic U.S. played out over the 1970s and 1980s through their great Olympic battles. Every sport was a fair game, and moments like the miracle on ice illustrated the fervent nationalistic undertones that dominated the storylines of Cold War-era Olympic games. More recently, tensions between East and West have once again reached a fever pitch. North Korea has engaged with the American government in a war of rhetoric as they continue to flaunt international sanctions levied upon them. Although tensions are high, North Korea and South Korea have made an effort to put their differences aside for the sake of sport. This past week, the New York Times reported that the two Koreas have agreed to not only march together under one flag during the Opening ceremony at this year’s winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, but also compete together on a joint hockey team for the Olympic tournament. Hopefully, the two sides can use this time not only to celebrate the two cultures, but also get back to the negotiating table and find a way to bring a long-lasting peace in the near future. This use of athletic diplomacy has potential to cause a détente between the two Koreas and possibly between North Korea and the United States.

Athletic diplomacy has been used many times in the past by countries to reduce tensions through sport. The two most common examples include Nixon’s “Ping-Pong diplomacy” tour of China and Barack Obama’s use of baseball to open relations with the Cuban government just two years ago. In the summer of 1971, China was becoming an international pariah as Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution drew heavy international criticism for regime’s violation of human rights. The communist nation shared many values with its Soviet neighbors, and by the summer of 1971, the threat of the two nations colluding to form an alliance that encompassed most of the Eastern world became very real. The mysterious regime also shared many similarities with the current North Korean regime through its closed-door policies and anti-democratic rhetoric. As Sino-American relations worsened due to Mao’s protectionist policies and anti-American rhetoric, President Richard Nixon negotiated to send the U.S. national table tennis team to China for an exhibition tour against the Chinese team that boasted some of the top ranked players in the world. The exhibition was a success; the American and Chinese teams played close games and the Chinese team even came to the U.S. on a national tour just months later. It played an influential role in persuading the two governments to renew relations and ensure peace between them through the duration of the Cold War. The U.S. has been able to make similar strides through the scope of athletics when dealing with smaller, isolated Communist governments as well.

During his second term in office, President Barack Obama decided to renege tensions with the Cuban government. Cuban leader Raul Castro has expressed interest in finally putting an end to the 50-year Cuban trade embargo imposed during the Cold War, and the people of Cuba had begun to embrace western culture. In March 2016, Obama became the first president in over 50 years to travel to the island nation and engage in talks with the Castro regime in the hopes of opening the door for American businesses to re-enter the Cuban market. Although the initial talks fell flat due to the sheer difference in ideology between two leaders, a baseball game between the MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team ultimately left both sides feeling optimistic about the future. America’s pastime just happened to be Cuba’s as well, and the spillover of American culture onto the island had already caused a great deal of Cuban ballplayers to defect to the U.S. to play professionally. Thus, baseball had formed the basis of their newfound relationship; Obama and Castro were able to come together on the one thing that bonded them more than any other. Sadly, the current Republican administration in office decided to renew the old restrictions, destroying any progress made by the Obama visit. Despite the recent change of policy towards Cuba, the blueprint for future progress between the two sides has clearly been established.

Athletic diplomacy has opened doors to negotiations  in the past, and North Korea has shown willingness to work together for the sake of athletic success.. However, there are several key factors that will make these negotiations more difficult than ever before. Kim-Jong Un remains entrenched in a war of rhetoric with both South Korea and the U.S. and has shown no other signs of backing down from his inflammatory actions, such as continuing to test nuclear missiles while flaunting international sanctions. Kim has repeatedly backed out of negotiations like this in the past and could do so once again. Furthermore, the regime has shown no desire to open itself to western markets and holds their ideology over the basic human rights of their citizens. When faced with clear incentive to turn these short-term agreements into long-term peace talks, the North Korean government has continued to be unpredictable.

History has shown that US and its allies are capable of opening the doors to diplomatic relations with Communist regimes through the practice of athletic diplomacy. Both the United States and North Korea can come together under the common ground of fair competition and nationalistic pride, as shown through the practices of baseball diplomacy in Cuba and ping-pong diplomacy in China. Sadly, the circumstances today are different in many ways. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities present a constant threat to the security and stability of the region and therefore must be dealt with sternly. Combined with Kim Jong Un’s continuing war of rhetoric against the democracies of the West, the situation leaves  little leeway to pursue a détente,. However, both sides have shown this theory of athletic diplomacy to be possible through their plan for unified action during the Olympics next week. Hopefully, both sides can use the time to come together and ease these tensions in the name of friendly competition.



Sang-hun, Choe. “North and South Korean Teams to March as One at Olympics.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 17 Jan. 2018,

Russell, I. Willis. “Among the New Words.” American Speech, vol. 46, no. 3, 1 May 1971, pp. 291–298. JSTOR,

Roberts, Dan. “Obama Embraces Cuba's Pastime with a Spot of Baseball Diplomacy.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Mar. 2016,

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