Nancy Gillen

The world’s best swimmers and divers are currently competing in the South Korean city of Gwangju at the International Swimming Federation (FINA) World Aquatics Championships. 

Some 194 nations are taking part, but there is one notable absentee.

North Korea declined to send athletes despite repeated requests from the host country and event organisers to do so. Pleas to North Korea were issued in several press conferences in the build up to the competition, while the deadline for registering competitors was even extended for North Korean athletes, to no avail. 

"Using several channels, we've repeatedly asked North Korea to participate," Gwangju Mayor Lee Yong-sup was reported as saying by Yonhap.

"It's quite regrettable that we haven't heard anything from them." 

The no-show makes a mockery of the competition's slogan, "Dive into Peace," which reflected Gwangju’s hope for promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula and the participation of North Korea.

Indeed, the absence of North Korean athletes in the South Korean city is a sign of the tumultuous nature of sporting diplomacy between the two countries, who are still technically at war.

At times, it seems as if sport is the only successful mechanism in uniting the two nations. Having attended World Taekwondo and International Taekwondo Federation joint demonstrations at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne and the United Nations Office at Geneva in May, I wrote about the positive impact this initiative had had on relations between North and South Korea. 

There are more obvious examples as well, such as the joint ice hockey team at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.

Nambu International Aquatics Centre in Gwangju is hosting the FINA World Aquatics Championships ©Getty Images
Nambu International Aquatics Centre in Gwangju is hosting the FINA World Aquatics Championships ©Getty Images

At other times, however, the use of sporting diplomacy between the Koreas is exposed as a façade for tokenistic action which has no genuine impact on the real world. The absence of North Korea at the FINA World Championships is one such case, but there have also been setbacks in attempts to ensure there are unified Korean teams at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Several federations have claimed to be working towards this goal, including the International Hockey Federation (FIH). There will not be a joint team in the women’s hockey competition, however.

South Korea heard nothing from North Korea when trying to organise combined training sessions, meaning that they could not register a unified team for the FIH Series Finals, a Tokyo 2020 qualifying competition. 

Plans are under way to have joint teams in judo, basketball and rowing, so whether these sports have more success remains to be seen.

The fact that the two countries cannot even organise a joint training session though, casts doubts on the plausibility of suggestions that a North-South Korean bid will be made for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, or the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The latter is still something that is being seriously considered, with Lee Kee-heung, President of the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee and recently elected International Olympic Committee (IOC) member, vowing to make a joint Olympic bid a success last month.

Personally it's not something that I can see happening.

Lee Kee-heung, President of the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee, vowed to make a North-South Korean bid for the 2032 Olympic Games a success after becoming an IOC member ©KSOC
Lee Kee-heung, President of the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee, vowed to make a North-South Korean bid for the 2032 Olympic Games a success after becoming an IOC member ©KSOC

Organising the Women's World Cup or Olympic and Paralympic Games is a mammoth task anyway, without the logistical nightmares that a joint event between the two Koreas would bring about. As a journalist, the first thing that comes to mind is press access to North Korea. 

An Australian student studying in the country was recently arrested there for writing a blog about his experiences, before being sent back home, accused of being a spy. This shows the level of control in North Korea, something which would have to be massively relaxed for the hordes of international journalists wanting to enter the country to cover the sporting event.

Such logistical struggles are extenuated by the fact that sporting diplomacy between North and South Korea often goes downhill when political relations do. The relationship between the two countries is obviously fractious, not helped by an erratic leadership in North Korea. How could either party guarantee that relations would not worsen in the build-up or during such a sporting event?

Despite the attraction of facilitating such a historic and groundbreaking event, bodies such as FIFA or the IOC would surely find it too much of a gamble to give the responsibility of hosting a prestigious sporting event to the fragile Korean peninsula.

As much as I would like to see such a scenario happen, the cynic in me sees the suggested joint bids as a way of appeasing those pushing for peace between the two countries, without having to actually commit to working together. I would be extremely surprised to see a North-South Korean bid in the latter stages of the bidding process for the Women's World Cup or Olympics.

Maybe this theory will be proven wrong, but one only has to look at the situation in Gwangju to see that both countries are far from hosting a joint sporting event together.

North Korea's snub of the FINA World Championships casts a little more doubt on the possibility of a joint Korean bid in the near future.