Inter-Korean thaw provides backdrop for Asian Games
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Inter-Korean thaw provides backdrop for Asian Games

The Asian Games in the South Korean port city of Busan provides the backdrop for the latest diplomatic drive to improve North-South relations.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2002 16:46 IST
Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse

The Asian Games in the South Korean port city of Busan provides the backdrop for the latest diplomatic drive to improve North-South relations.

The Busan Asiad will be the largest ever with 11,600 athletes and officials from 44 Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) members taking part for the first time.

And South Korean officials hope the presence of North Korean athletes and supporters in an international sports event in the South for the first time will promote peace on the world's last Cold War frontier.

For North Korea, the Asiad will is another example of its new drive to open up to the outside world, according to analysts and experts here.

"The North appears to be using the Asiad as a springboard for its latest move to ease an economic crisis and isolation," said Chon Hyon-Joon, a North Korea watcher at the Korea Institute for National Unication in Seoul.

"At the Busan Asiad, the North will try to harvest political and economic benefits by showing the world it is sincere in pursuing an inter-Korean thaw," he said.

The North's decision to send 356 athletes and officials to Busan followed an agreement at high-level talks between the two Koreas last month to put their flagging peace process back on track.

The agreement reduced military tensions over an inter-Korean naval clash in June that had eroded support for South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung's policy of seeking rapprochement with the communist state.

Despite tentative efforts at reconciliation, the two Koreas have never formally buried the hatchet since the 1950-53 war.

Domestically, Kim's Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) hopes the North's participation in the Asiad will give the party the boost it needs in its race for presidential elections in December.

But there are worries that any hitch to the North's participation could fuel sentiment among South Korean conservative groups, which are opposed to Kim's policy.

The two Koreas have agreed to allow their athletes to march together in the opening ceremony with flags featuring a sky blue image of the undivided Korean peninsula on a white background.

But the North's flag will fly for medal-awarding and other official ceremonies.

The opposition Grand National Party (GNP) has asked for strong security measures to prevent the flag, banned under national security legislation here, from appearing in the streets.

"Strong steps must be taken not to see the fluttering of North Korean flags outside Asiad venues," GNP lawmaker Kim Chong-Ha said recently.

The GNP's demand reflects lingering suspicions in Seoul of the North's motives.

The South Korean govenment is clearly concerned that Pyongyang could score a diplomatic gold medal at the Asiad.

"Ironically, Kim's recent drive helped Pyongyang strengthen its political influence here," said Cho Choong-Bin, a political science professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.

"They know Kim's party is an underdog in the election race," he added.

Kim has been credited with efforts to ease inter-Korean tensions but his popularity nosedived this year with two of his three sons in jail awaiting trial on corruption charges.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner also suffered a humiliating blow last month when the opposition-controlled National Assembly vetoed his second candidate for prime minister. He must stand down in February next year.

First Published: Sep 25, 2002 12:07 IST