Sometimes a piece of news comes in, and your heart sinks. Really sinks. This is such a time.
Good news first. The 17th Asian Games (or Asiad) are set to kick off in the South Korean port city of Incheon imminently: on September 19 to be exact, continuing through October 4. Athletes from 45 countries will compete in 439 events over 36 sports, in a festive spirit.
This is the third time South Korea has hosted these games. In 2002 another port city, Busan, did the honors. Before that it was Seoul, in 1986. (Factoid: Asiad 86 was the first time China ever sent its athletes to the Republic of Korea (ROK) – two years before the better-known 1988 Seoul Olympics, and six years before the two countries opened diplomatic relations.)
As that case suggests, it’s hard to keep sport out of politics. But back then the political vibes were positive. Almost all South Koreans welcomed those early Chinese visitors.
Politics also featured in Busan in 2002. Then, as I’ve written about here before, it was North Korea’s presence en masse – cheerleaders and all – at an international sporting event in South Korea which was a breakthrough. Here too the mood was positive. The 14th Asiad was a big success, both for South Korea as organizer and for inter-Korean relations in the sunshine era.
Thereafter North Korea took part in two more international sports meetings in the South, in 2003 and 2005. Each time they brought a cheering squad as well. Despite one incident when the North’s cheerleaders went ballistic over a portrait of the Dear Leader that was getting wet, those events passed off smoothly as well.
History is supposed to be about progress, right? Then how come almost a decade later, with North Korea once again coming to an event in the South – indeed their team is due to fly in this very day, as I write – this time everything between the two Koreas seems so fraught?
Must-see photo of the day – Air Koryo plane landing in Seoul, dropping off first batch of Asiad delegation pic.twitter.com/FAs9Lv2kh1
— NK NEWS (@nknewsorg) September 11, 2014
NO CHEER FOR CHEERLEADERS
Let’s bracket for now the cheerleaders row. In my view it was petty and a breach of precedent for Seoul not to pick up the tab for the North’s support squad, having done so on all previous such occasions. What message exactly did President Park Geun-hye, supposed advocate of Trustpolitik, think she was sending to Pyongyang by such pernickety miserliness? And why?
I call that party-pooping. But now, the Asiad organisers – presumably off their own bat; I’d hate to think the Blue House was pulling any strings – have done something much worse.
Words fail me, almost. This is an appalling decision on every count
Can you believe, they have taken down ALL the flags of ALL the competing nations which had been colorfully fluttering in the streets of Incheon and nearby Goyang? Why? Because a few fascists objected to the North’s flag being raised in the South, and threatened violence.
Words fail me, almost. This is an appalling decision on every count, and there are many.
First, it’s illegal. The Olympic Council of Asia’s rules are clear. The flags of every competing nation must fly, without hindrance. Convention and common courtesy, too, demand no less.
Second, it lets the North take the moral high ground (imagine that!). As you’d expect, in the past it’s the DPRK which has broken the rules on such matters. At least once a football match had to be moved to a third country because North Korea refused point-blank to let the ROK flag, the Taegukgi (태극기), fly on its territory. FIFA cravenly caved in on that one.
But more recently Pyongyang made amends. A year ago it hosted the Asian Cup and Interclub Weightlifting Championship. South Korea sent a team, several of whom won medals. The ROK national anthem was duly played and the Taegukgi raised. Both were even seen and heard on DPRK TV, if briefly. For once North Korea did the right thing, scrupulously.
Third, domestically it’s pathetic and craven that the Asiad organisers let themselves be bullied by a tiny unrepresentative bunch of fascists. (Definitions: Extreme right-wingers who threaten wanton and gratuitous illegal violence are fascists, are they not?)
Whatever your views on North Korea – and my hostility is a matter of record – no one should be allowed to disrupt a peaceful international sports event. (As for brand damage, read on.)
I am fed up with the tiresome few in South Korea who find any excuse to burn or rip up a picture of Kim Jong Un or Kim Jong Il in public.
Two sub-points here. I am fed up with the tiresome few in South Korea who find any excuse to burn or rip up a picture of Kim Jong Un or Kim Jong Il in public. This helps nobody. And I’m even more annoyed with lazy media who trot out these same stale images time and again, rather than actually getting off their butts to do some journalism and find the specific story.
Sub-point two: Usually South Korea doesn’t hesitate to use overwhelming force, if needed – or even if not needed. Like sending thousands of police to raid the compound of the church loyal to the late Sewol ferry tycoon, Yoo Byung-eun. Or, disgracefully, harassing the peaceful protests of grieving families who lost their children in that dreadful ferry tragedy – and here again, sending in riot police by the busload to block and menace them.
How many police would it take to protect a few flags? One each would do it, I reckon. The objectors are very few, and often elderly. A symbolic police presence, sending a firm hint, would have seen them off and nipped this bullying nonsense in the bud.
BAD FOR THE BRAND
My fourth main point is that Incheon’s capitulation does terrible damage to that much-hyped mantra, South Korea’s national brand. No country is keener to make a splash in the world, to get noticed. Hence the ROK’s enthusiasm for hosting everything under the sun. Olympics, Winter Olympics, the Asiad, the G-20, any number of big global conferences: They want it.
And they get it. And they do a great job, usually. But Incheon has let the side down badly. 43 other countries will be mighty surprised to arrive into a drab and flagless Incheon – and then mighty annoyed when they learn the reason. It’s those damned Koreans, fighting again.
That leads to my point five. This may hurt if you’re Korean, but get this. No one cares. Yup, that’s right. Korea and its squabbles bore most of the world rigid, especially in Asia. There they go again, those darned Koreans. All they care about is Korea, and their own quarrels.
Korea and its squabbles bore most of the world rigid, especially in Asia
Sad but true. Am I wrong? Non-Koreans who know and care about Korea are a tiny minority, and always will be. That may be regrettable, but it’s the truth. If South Korea really wants to work on and fine-tune its national image, then it needs to take that on board and work with it.
But back to Incheon. My sixth and final point is a fear: that the no-flag decision will damage already fragile inter-Korean relations further. Pyongyang will be cross, and for once it has good reason. Might it even pull its team out? Either way, what could have been a real chance to begin mending fences looks set to be more of a fight-fest than a festival of sport.
Yet it’s still not too late to reverse this bad decision and let the flags fly again. The organisers should put up all the flags once more, without delay and with a police presence if need be. They should also issue a statement explaining why. I’ll even draft it for them:
“The organising committee of the 17th Asian Games is committed to following the rules and the spirit of the Olympic Council of Asia. These include raising the flags of all participating nations. As host nation, the Republic of Korea is committed to international law and custom. Whatever grievance anyone may hold against a particular regime or its flag, is no excuse for violence or the threat of violence. All flags will fly, and will be defended with the full force of the law. Moreover, any South Korean who threatens the peace of the Asian Games is thereby damaging the international reputation and brand of the Republic of Korea, and is no patriot.”
That should do the trick. But I fear the damage has already been done. Let’s hope I’m wrong.
Picture: Flickr, Creative Commons, Morning Calm
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