The warming ties between the two Koreas, still technically at war, may become most evident to the world on soccer fields and table tennis tournaments in the months ahead.
Olympic President Juan Antonio Samaranch has suggested that the two Koreas march together under the Olympic flag to the tune of a traditional Korean folk song. Olympic teams usually march under their national flag while their national anthems play.
The idea was discussed at June’s landmark summit in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, between the leaders of North and South Korea and their top officials.
The two sides have yet to reach a final decision, pending further talks in Pyongyang at the end of the month, said Kim Un-yong, president of the Korean Olympic Committee and an executive board member of the International Olympic Committee.
“It would be a surprising event, satisfying to see, if we entered the stadium with our (North Korean) brothers,” said Kim, who took part in the Pyongyang summit as a member of President Kim Dae-jung’s delegation.
TABLE TENNIS AND TAEKWONDO
The North Korean leader Kim Jong-il showed great interest in the idea of sporting exchanges between the two Koreas, “asking me which sport event would be the strongest when joint teams are possible,” Kim said in an interview.
“I answered that joint teams in table tennis, taekwondo, judo and wrestling would be much better than separate ones. Still, both Koreas have a long way to go.”
The two countries have fostered some camaraderie with a series of friendly basketball and soccer matches in their capitals over the past nine months.
“It’s not hard to see North Korean athletes talking and laughing with South Koreans in various international sports events,” Kim said.
North Korea reacted positively to the idea of forming a joint Korean team for the 2002 World Cup, which South Korea and Japan are co-hosting, he said.
They could have plenty of chances to work out the team chemistry before then.
ASIAN CUP SOCCER
The two sides are talking about a joint team for the Asian Cup soccer tournament in Lebanon in October and the Asian Youth soccer championships in Iran the following month.
They are also talking about a joint team for the 2001 World Table Tennis championships in Osaka, Japan, next year.
Kim said he had probably talked with high-ranking North Korean officials 50 times over the years about sports exchanges “but nothing ever came of them because of the political disagreements between the two Korean governments”.
They were close to forming a joint team for the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad and the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing “but we couldn’t make it in the end for political reasons”.
The two have formed joint teams in the past.
There was a single team for the World Youth Soccer championships in Portugal and the World Table Tennis championships in 1991.
That year saw the last big breakthrough in inter-Korean ties, when the two sides signed a “Basic Agreement” on improving ties, an exercise not unlike what they’re trying to do now.
The pact was never implemented as military tensions escalated on the world’s last Cold War frontier.
“Now that we’ve reached an agreement at the summit to beef up sports exchanges, nothing can stop us from bettering our relationship,” Kim said.