Koreas extend conciliatory steps to Asian Games

North Korean athletes, headed by North Korean Vice Sports Minister Won Kil U, are greeted before leaving the Pyongyang international airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, to participate in the 18th Asian Games Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. The war-separated rivals will take their reconciliation steps to the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, where North and South Korea will jointly march in the opening ceremony and field combined teams in basketball, rowing and canoeing. (AP Photo/Cha Song Ho)
FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2018, file photo, members of the North Korean delegation hold flags of the combined Koreas before the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)
In this July 27, 2018, photo, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, right, and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi hold the mascots of the 2018 Asian Games, from left to right, Kaka, Bhin Bhin and Atung during their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea. The war-separated rivals will take their reconciliation steps to the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, where they will jointly march in the opening ceremony and field combined teams in basketball, rowing and canoeing. (Bae Jae-man/Yonhap via AP)
FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2018, file photo, North Korea's Hwang Chung Gum and South Korea's Won Yun-jong carry the unification flag during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)
FILE - In this July 29, 2018, file photo, a North Korean delegation arrives for joint Asian Games training with South Koreans at Incheon International Airpot in Incheon, South Korea. The war-separated rivals will take their reconciliation steps to the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, where they will jointly march in the opening ceremony and field combined teams in basketball, rowing and canoeing. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)
North Korean athletes, headed by North Korean Vice Sports Minister Won Kil U, prepare to leave the Pyongyang international airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, to participate in the 18th Asian Games Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. The war-separated rivals will take their reconciliation steps to the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, where North and South Korea will jointly march in the opening ceremony and field combined teams in basketball, rowing and canoeing. (AP Photo/Cha Song Ho)
FILE - In this July 31, 2018 file photo, South and North Korean players train on Tangeum Lake International Rowing Center in Chungju, South Korea. The war-separated rivals will take their reconciliation steps to the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, where they will jointly march in the opening ceremony and field combined teams in basketball, rowing and canoeing. (Jeon Heon-kyun/Pool Photo via AP, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 5, 2018, file photo, North Korea's Kim Ju Sik, right, skates next to South Korea's Kim Kyueun, left, and Kam Alex Kang Chan during a Pairs Figure Skating training session prior to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. The war-separated rivals will take their reconciliation steps to the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, where they will jointly march in the opening ceremony and field combined teams in basketball, rowing and canoeing. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)
FILE - In this June 12, 2018, file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un participate in a signing ceremony during a meeting on Sentosa Island in Singapore. The war-separated rivals will take their reconciliation steps to the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, where South and North Korea will jointly march in the opening ceremony and field combined teams in basketball, rowing and canoeing. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
FILE - In this April 27, 2018, file photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, left, poses with South Korean President Moon Jae-in for a photo inside the Peace House at the border village of Panmunjom in Demilitarized Zone, South Korea. The war-separated rivals will take their reconciliation steps to the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, where they will jointly march in the opening ceremony and field combined teams in basketball, rowing and canoeing. (Korea Summit Press Pool via AP. Pool, File)

SEOUL, South Korea — With the Koreas, there's no separating their sports from their politics.

The war-separated rivals will take their reconciliation steps to the Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia, where they will jointly march in the opening ceremony and field combined teams in basketball, rowing and canoeing.

"Sports have played the role of peacemaker between the Koreas," said Kim Seong-jo, vice chairman of South Korea's Olympic committee and the country's chef de mission at the Asian Games. "If the combined teams put out good performances and win medals, that would be putting the cherry on the top."

North and South Korea have used sports diplomacy this year in a bid to decrease animosity and initiate a new round of global diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff with Pyongyang.

South Korea leaders consider goodwill gestures as crucial to keep the positive atmosphere alive for what could become a long and difficult attempt to persuade the North to give up its nuclear and missile programs.

There's not much Seoul can do beyond such gestures, though, as joint economic projects are out of the question when lifting sanctions against North Korea is far beyond the South's control. The more substantial discussions on the North's denuclearization — including what, when and how it would occur— are always going to be between Washington and Pyongyang.

Here's a look at what the Koreas are planning for the Asian Games and their ebbs and flows in sports diplomacy:

___

BLUE FLAGS AND COMBINED TEAMS

In the opening ceremony in Jakarta, athletes from North and South Korea will parade together under the flag featuring a blue map that symbolized a unified Korean Peninsula. It will be virtual repeat of the joint march during February's Winter Olympics in the South Korean ski resort of Pyeongchang, minus the gloves, parkas and fur hats.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent hundreds of athletes, artists and government officials to the Pyeongchang Olympics. The Koreas also fielded their first combined Olympic team in women's ice hockey, which drew passionate support from crowds despite losing all five of its games with a combined score of 28-2.

At the Asian Games, the Koreas will be expected to deliver more than just feel-good stories. There's pressure for the investment to yield gold. A group of 34 North Korean athletes, coaches and officials have been in South Korea since last month for combined teams in women's basketball and the men's and women's events in rowing and canoeing.

Coach Lee Moon-kyu, who has retained a core of South Korean players who won gold at the 2014 Asian Games at home in Incheon, got a first-hand look at North Korean players during exhibitions in Pyongyang in early July. Lee later picked three North Korean players for the Asian Games squad, including center Ro Suk Yong. Lee will also have a North Korean assistant coach on his bench.

The Koreans will face Taiwan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and India in their preliminary group.

South Korean forward Lim Yung-hui said the chemistry between the players has been improving.

"The Northern players share the same goal of the gold medal and we talk a lot about how we should be putting out a good performance there," Lim said. "We weren't given much time, but we are practicing hard in a positive atmosphere."

The Koreas will field combined teams in dragon boat events in canoeing and the lightweight men's four, lightweight men's eight and lightweight women's double sculls in rowing.

If a combined team wins gold, athletes on the podium will hear the traditional folk song of "Arirang,"used in both Koreas as an unofficial anthem for peace, instead of their respective national anthems.

The Korean athletes are likely to become an attraction at the Asian Games, where the international media will follow closely.

At the Pyeongchang Olympics, South Korean figure skater Kam Alex Kang-chan created a media frenzy by taking a selfie with North Korea's Kim Ju Sik and posting it on Instagram. The photo recalled a famous 2016 selfie taken by two North and South Korean gymnasts at the Rio Olympics which International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach described as a "great gesture."

___

THEY DON'T ALWAYS PLAY NICE

The Koreas have a history of using sports to foster diplomacy since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The 1991 world table tennis championships in Japan were the first time the Koreas fielded a combined team at a major international event.

The atmosphere wasn't always friendly, though. During the height of their Cold War rivalry and recurring periods of animosity since, sports often became an alternate political battlefield.

North Korean athletes and coaches would reject handshakes with their South Korean competitors and berate South Korean reporters during news conferences. The sports detente of 1991 evaporated when a North Korean athlete who competed at the world judo championships in Barcelona defected and arrived in South Korea amid heavy media coverage.

North Korea boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the '88 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and relations dramatically worsened on the eve of the Seoul Olympics with the bombing of a South Korean passenger jet that killed all 115 aboard in December 1987.

The inter-Korean warmth heading into this year's Asian Games contrasts with the awkwardness between the rivals surrounding the 2014 Asiad held in South Korea. Seoul's then-conservative government invited North Korean athletes to compete, but made it clear it had no interest in joint marches or combined teams.

North Korean subsequently withdrew an offer to send its all-female cheering squad to Incheon after squabbling with the hosts over costs.

North Korean leader Kim did send a senior government delegation to the closing ceremony, but they returned home without meeting then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye.

The North was still seething over the Asian Game treatment years later as it gleefully observed Park's presidency crashing over a corruption scandal.

"The Park Geun-hye group's mad confrontational racket is to blame for why (the North Korean) visit to Incheon did not result in improved relations," the North said in a statement in April last year.

___

WILL THE GOOD TIMES LAST?

Kim has found a willing counterpart in Moon, a liberal who won the presidential by-elections to replace Park last year.

Since the Pyeongchang Olympics, Kim has met Moon twice and leveraged the summits to get to U.S. President Donald Trump. After their June summit in Singapore, Kim and Trump issued a vague aspirational goal for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula without describing specific plans.

Sports exchanges and other goodwill gestures are important policy tools for Moon, who wants Seoul to be in the "driver's seat" in international efforts to deal with Pyongyang. The Koreas have also agreed to resume temporary reunions between relatives separated by the war and are holding military talks to reduce tensions across their heavily armed border.

"Hopefully, (the Asian Games) will provide an opportunity to use sports to facilitate diplomacy and cooperation," Moon said while meeting Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi in Seoul last month. Seoul's presidential office hasn't announced yet whether Moon would attend the opening ceremony in Jakarta on Aug. 18.

Whatever happens in Indonesia or with nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, the Koreas will always have those heartening selfies posted by athletes.

"Sports can be used to build momentum and trust, but they don't solve fundamental problems," said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University and a policy adviser to Moon. "There's not much South Korea can currently do, but at least it's trying to actively do the things it can to keep the positive atmosphere alive. "

___

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

___

Follow Kim Tong-hyung on Twitter at https://twitter.com/KimTongHyung

Must Read

China orders Marriott to suspend website, app in...

Jan 12, 2018

Regulators have ordered the Marriott hotel chain to close its China-based website and app for one...

Missing bookseller hits out at Sweden in arranged...

Feb 10, 2018

A detained Swedish bookseller at the center of escalating row between Western governments and...

Holidaying frog game finds fans among China's...

Feb 13, 2018

A mobile game starring a vacationing frog has attracted a massive following in China by speaking to...

Chinese automaker plans electric car production...

Apr 25, 2018

Chinese automaker BAIC announces plans to produce electric cars in South Africa as Beijing auto...

China eases investment curbs as clash with US...

Jun 29, 2018

China is easing limits on foreign ownership in auto manufacturing, insurance and other fields but...