Modern tension on the Korean Peninsula dates back to 1945 when the Soviet Union declared war on the current occupiers, Japan. In years prior, the peninsula had been controlled by a series of dynasties, but was invaded and annexed by Japan in 1910. After the end of World War II in 1945, the territory was divided along the 38th parallel between the United States and Soviet Union. Hope for unification faded in June 1950 when North Korea breached the border leading to the outbreak of the Korean War. After three years of intense fighting between American, Chinese, Soviet, and Korean troops, the war officially concluded with the formalization of a interstate border called the demilitarized zone. However, low-level fighting and frequent rhetorical provocations keep the conflict on the radar of many relevant states.
In the past, North and South Korea marched together in the Olympics on three separate occasions: 2000 in Sydney, 2004 in Athens, and 2006 in Turin. Describing the event as "highly emotional," athletes from North and South Korea travelled to the stadium together and marched in the opening ceremonies as one unified entity. Using the flag of the Korean Peninsula, a simple flag with a blue silhouette of the Korean Peninsula and a white background, the group showed one of the very few instances of Korean bilateralism in the last few decades.
Moreover, North and South Korea discussed collaborating on the 2018 Olympics taking place in Pyeongchang. South Korean politician Sohn Hak-kyu said the games should be "a turning point in the history of the divided Korean Peninsula, as well as in global peace." However, the future of the relationship is unclear after Kim Jong-il died last December and Kim Jong-un's leadership style is largely unknown. North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons will remain a crucial issue for US East Asia policy and regional partners participating in six party negotiations such as Russia and China.
The 2012 Summer and 2018 Winter Olympic games have the ability to symbolize cooperation on the Korean peninsula. However, more substantive engagement is needed on the diplomatic and nuclear non-proliferation fronts if there is to be lasting peace between the two countries.
Check back next week for the third installment of our series highlighting the Olympic Games. We will discuss the famous black power salute at the 1968 games in Mexico City.