DPRK Cheerleaders Row Jeopardises Trustpolitik

In depth

The 2014 Asian Games, scheduled to take place between 19 September and 4 October, will see thousands of athletes from at least 44 Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) member states descend on the city of Incheon in what will be Asia’s largest sporting event. But the participation of the 45th OCA state, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is still uncertain after negotiations over the logistics of its contingent broke down last month. The failure to come to an agreement also casts doubts over the sincerity of President Park Geun-hye trademark “trust building process.”

In recent months the DPRK has been increasingly signalling its determination to participate in the Incheon Games: it officially announced it would send its athletes to compete in the games, and a squad of cheerleaders; notified it would increase the number of athletes, along with a number of reporters; and finally, indicated that it would dispatch a delegation of officials to take part in group draw events due next week. By Pyongyang’s standards, sending so many of its citizens down south is by no means a light and risk-free decision, especially at a time of severely strained inter-Korean relations and the DPRK’s firm rejection of Park Geun-hye’s Dresden Doctrine.

Kim Jong Un has personally stressed the games should not be used for political purposes, yet it would be unreasonable to assume the DPRK is purely taking the initiative to demonstrate its peace-seeking nature. Or perhaps it is: to stage an eye-opening publicity stunt would reinforce the notion it is peacefully seeking to cooperate with South Koreans and the global community. Sending a perfectly groomed “army of beauties” – as they are dubbed by the South Korea media – is not unprecedented. On three previous occasions – the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu and the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon – the cheerleading squad was welcomed, garnering more attention in the media than the actual athletes.

South Korea, too, has much to benefit. On top of potentially being a stepping stone in the reconciliation process, allowing such a large delegation of young elite North Koreans ‘experience’ the riches and vibrancy of South Korea would in itself be eye-opening for the participants. Contact with the outside world and the subsequent proliferation of information cannot be underestimated, as is the case with the Kaesong Industrial Complex. This is surely what the South Korean government should take advantage of and cash in on.

But cash has now become the apparent stumbling block over which the two sides are now in disagreement. Negotiations held last month over the technicalities in bringing an estimate 700 North Koreans to Incheon bore little fruit, with the South blaming the North for “unilaterally walking out” of the talks due to lack of sincerity. The DPRK painted a very different version of events, stating that the South,

“which had responded to the proposal of the DPRK side at the morning talks as seen above made an abrupt U turn in the afternoon at the instruction of Chongwadae and took a challenging approach towards it […] it made absurd assertions that ‘it is necessary to follow international practice’.”

“It took issue with the scope of the cheerleading squad and the size of the national flag of the DPRK, talking about “feelings in the south side” and claiming “it is hard to ensure personal safety”. It went the lengths of disallowing even the big size not only of the national flag of the DPRK but also that of the Korean peninsula flag.”

“Afterwards, it went so mean as to talk about paying one’s own expenses, after raising the issue of expenses for the players group and the cheerleading squad which the DPRK side has never mentioned”.

Public disclosure of closed-door negotiations will never be known, for both state media agencies have their own agendas to follow. But what is clear is the reason for failed talks. It is very surprising the Blue House did intervene so counter-productively. The sudden change in directives and demand to “follow international standards” is contradictory and inconsistent with the previous three visits. While officially speaking the ROK and DPRK are considered as two separate states by the OCA due to the unique geopolitical situation on the peninsula, the ROK does not officially recognise the DPRK, and vice-versa; the ROK considers all Koreans, North and South, as citizens given Article 3 of its Constitution, which says:

“The territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands”.

Costs have always been a delicate issue for the DPRK. While the North is actually used to capitalist cash-flows, suddenly having to pay upfront poses a certain challenge. The North has traditionally housed the cheerleaders on-board their own docked ferry to no doubt save costs and prevent any risk of capitalist contamination. However under the current 5.24 sanctions, DPRK ships are banned from sailing down south, leaving the the DPRK few options other than staying in a hotel. The DPRK negotiators no doubt walked out the talks to save face rather than admit they essentially cannot pay, or do not have the power to make such a decision.

Frustration over “financially assisting” the DPRK is nothing new in South Korea. From the cash-for-summit scandal a decade ago to unresolved issues such as apologies for the sinking of the Cheonan corvette and the fatal shooting of a tourist at the Mt. Kumgang resort, South Korea has reasons to be suspicious about hosting their northern counterparts. Among South Koreans there is a certain fatigue when it comes to dealing with North Korea. But the very fact that the debate is ongoing, topped with the ambiguity and inconsistency about following the constitution, what sanctions apply and what “standards” to adhere to, is indicative of the pressing need for more engagement. More so than ever, it is foolish for the Blue House to reject the possibility of using the relatively neutral arena of sports to practice its diplomacy vis-à-vis Pyongyang.

The current Park Geun-hye government, which advocates a so-called “trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula” has yet to clarify how it will achieve trust. While the administration is certainly keen to quickly spend millions on a physical legacy landmark within the presidential five years term, it is less willing to foot the bill of one of the poorest countries in the world, one that constitutionally speaking does not even exist. It begs the question: were costs to suddenly be covered by an international fund thus alleviating South Korea of the so-called financial obstacle, would Seoul still be ready and willing to eagerly welcome the delegation? Faced with a lack of legal constraints, the South Korean government has demonstrated its need to raise artificial ones.

The building of trust between two parties requires for a minimum level of signalling of intent to cooperate from both sides, and these signals should be ‘costly’. In the case of the DPRK, it would very much seem like it has fulfilled its side of the bargain by making the initial overture. The financial burden on the South, while being ‘costly’, is not onerous, especially considering there exists a special Inter-Korean Cooperation Fund – valued at a staggering 12.2 trillion KRW (approx. 11.9 billion USD) as of December 2013 – to be used exclusively for supporting “mutual exchanges and cooperation between South and North Korea”.

The row over allowing the DPRK contingent to come to Incheon sheds light into the fictitious nature of Park Geun-hye’s trust building process. Thus far the policy has seen the administration focus purely on PR stunts such creating buzzwords (and finding their English equivalents), planning a so-called peace park in the Demilitarised Zone (vehemently rejected by the North for its commercial aspect in profiting from a symbol of division), and rejoicing at reaping economical gains from eventual reunification. President Park has also created a cronyistic rubber-stamp Committee for Unification Preparation, sidestepping the original mandate of the Ministry of Unification and self-appointing herself as Council Chairwoman. These measures have little to do with trust-building.

While Seoul hosts Pope Francis under the banner of “peace and reconciliation”, the DPRK continues to launch missiles into the East Sea, no doubt protesting all the attention the South is receiving on the global stage. As important as it is to bask in the glow of a papal visit, if President Park is serious about reunification she has the responsibility to explore every avenue at her disposal to engage with North Korea, including openly welcoming the DPRK contingent next month. But given her personal history with North Korea as the daughter of a staunch anti-communist president, and with Kim Ki-choon serving as her chief of staff in the Blue House, the row over the cheerleaders’ participation suggests that the current administration’s trustpolitik may amount to little more than empty rhetoric.


Raphael is a freelance journalist and fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies from Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.