David Owen

And lo, suddenly the insidethegames newsfeed was full of stuff about the two Koreas.

What has struck me most about the recent relaxation of tensions and moves towards probable North Korean participation at Pyeongchang 2018 is how last-minute, even seat-of-pants, it all appears to have been - particularly in comparison with Seoul 1988.

Then, as you may recall, Pyongyang's attitude/policy towards the Games was a source of continual preoccupation from years out.

So much so that between 1985 and 1987, four rounds of joint North-South talks took place in the Olympic capital Lausanne, under International Olympic Committee (IOC) auspices.

This time, though I have no doubt that the full story is only just starting to come out, it appeared until recently that the main players were minded essentially to ignore North Korea's profoundly unsettling antics and to plough on with Games preparations regardless.

What might explain the almost night-and-day contrast between the two approaches, and what does this tell us about the ways in which the world has changed in the past generation - and those in which it has not?

IOC member Richard Pound wrote a meticulous and extremely well-informed book about the 1980s negotiations, called Five Rings Over Korea, and one of the points he makes is how unusual it was for the IOC to encroach so clearly into the domain of politics.

The IOC, he wrote, "eschewed its traditional role of avoiding political action and injected itself into a question that had, at its foundation, nothing whatsoever to do with sport".

Talks between North Korea and South Korea have begun prior to Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images
Talks between North Korea and South Korea have begun prior to Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

It can hence be argued that the more laissez-faire approach seemingly adopted pre-Pyeongchang is more typical.

Why did the 1980s-era IOC step outside its usual comfort-zone?

In my view its daring partly reflected the enormously high stakes it was playing for at the time.

The Lausanne-based body was by no means the financial juggernaut it has since become (partly, let it be noted, thanks to Pound).

This was, moreover, the period of intensely damaging political boycotts.

The 1988 Games simply had to be a success for the sake of the IOC's future.

Yet IOC members had decided in 1981 to take the event to what was really still a developing country on the front-line of the Cold War, in preference to relatively developed, relatively stable Japan.

The IOC was fortunate to the extent that it had at its helm a diplomat, Juan Antonio Samaranch, steeped in the wiles of international politics.

The Spaniard had the statesmanship - and patience - to manage a negotiation process which amounted, in Pound's words, to "a strategy designed to lead to an attribution of eventual blame, not a means for ensuring that an agreement would be reached".

Once this is grasped, it is clear that North Korea's non-participation in Seoul is not the yardstick by which the charade of the North-South talks should be judged; it is the participation, barring Cuba, of more or less everyone else.

As Pound put it to me this week, the negotiations "turned out to have been a brilliant strategy.

"They enabled the IOC - and through it, South Korea - to show potential allies of North Korea, including China and the USSR in particular, that the IOC was taking the unworkable demands of North Korea to co-host the Games seriously and that it was trying to negotiate a sensible solution.

"The dragged-out nature of the meetings was a useful component of that strategy, since international consensus normally requires time to develop."

The strategy of IOC-led negotiations, Pound went on, reflected "a huge political gamble by South Korea, since it left such a crucial piece of its own national policy in the hands of Samaranch, the only IOC leader, before or since, who had the capacity to undertake such an ambitious and delicate role".

The Korea question also dominated Olympic circles prior to and during Seoul 1988 ©Getty Images
The Korea question also dominated Olympic circles prior to and during Seoul 1988 ©Getty Images

If the IOC and South Korea - for whom Seoul 1988 would be a global coming-out party - were playing for high stakes with hands that were economically and politically weaker than those they now hold, the position of North Korea, though a fief of the same family as today, was markedly stronger.

The Communist bloc was still a reality, although change was in the air, with Mikhail Gorbachev acceding to the General Secretary-ship of the USSR's Communist party in March 1985.

This meant that Pyongyang was less obviously isolated than it is today, with a group of potential international supporters, should it not get its own way, that stretched well beyond Beijing.

In fact, with Samaranch seemingly sparing no effort to navigate a path through the diplomatic minefield surrounding the Games and the Cold War approaching its end-game with Gorby in the Kremlin, the awkward squad turned out to be limited, once invitations to attend the Games had been sent out, to Kim Il-sung and Fidel Castro. (Ethiopia, Albania and Nicaragua were also missing.)

As Pound wrote: "In the final analysis, in the late 1980s the world was ready for an easing of tension, and the 1988 Olympic Games provided a convenient opportunity to demonstrate that an international consensus was developing."

There was, he said, "a complete congruence of national interests among the three superpowers to prevent any incidents on the Korean peninsula".

It seems to me that a similar congruence, through luck as much as judgement, has emerged today.

China, still probably Pyongyang's most important ally, has bought solidly into the Olympic project as host of the next Winter Games after Pyeongchang.

The same is true of Japan, the other big regional power, which has as much cause as anyone for concern about the North's nuclear weapons programme and missile tests.

It remains to be seen if North Korea's participation in Pyeongchang will lead to a thawing of tensions ©Getty Images
It remains to be seen if North Korea's participation in Pyeongchang will lead to a thawing of tensions ©Getty Images

Russia is presumably glad that an alternative story big enough to divert attention from the doping saga that has dominated the sports news agenda in recent times has emerged.

The IOC must similarly have been desperate for a "Good News" story-line after the past two mainly difficult years, especially when said story-line enables it to be portrayed, more or less convincingly, as a still-relevant force for good.

For South Korea, the lessening tensions can bring a boost for national politicians, renewed hope that the reunification still desired by most of its citizens might one day be possible and one less Games-time security headache, even if there are extensive grounds for scepticism regarding Kim Jong-un's motives.

North Korea - whose companionable 79-year-old world citizen Ung Chang is embarking on his final year as a full IOC member - gleans some rare, relatively favourable international publicity, is able to indulge in some reunification symbolism of its own, without wider consequence unless it so chooses, and might have the occasional sporting victory to trumpet to its long-suffering population.

As for the United States, well it is hard to think that even Donald Trump really wants a second Korean war - and it, like everyone else, can claim credit for recent seemingly positive developments.

Seven concerned parties and all can derive benefit from the current pre-Games thaw.

Adopting IOC President Thomas Bach-speak, I make that potentially a win-win-win-win-win-win-win.