Why Two Koreas Will Play as One

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North Korea and South Korea once viewed their encounters in international sporting competitions as proxy warfare. And therein lies the symbolic importance of their decision, announced Tuesday, to field a joint team for the 2006 Asian Games and the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The once-bitter enemies had already marched together in opening ceremonies at the two previous Olympiads in Sydney and Athens. But fielding a joint team is a major affirmation of the principle that the separate states of North Korea and South Korea nonetheless constitute a single nation. It is also a victory for Seoul, which has been pushing Pyongyang to agree to this for years. The two sides begin talks in the North Korean border town of Kaesong on Dec.7 to work out details. Gushed Korean Olympic Committee official Park In Kyo: "This is definitely going to have a positive influence in the Korean peninsula."

Seoul has doggedly persisted with initiatives promoting reconciliation despite the simmering controversy over North Korean nuclear weapons. In recent months, the two sides have agreed on a slew of economic projects, including the reopening of rail links by year's end. Sports and cultural exchanges are multiplying as well—in August, a top South Korean pop star performed in Pyongyang and a group of women pro-golfers from the South played a tournament on a North Korean course where official legend holds that the Dear Leader once shot five hole-in-ones in a single round. Every day, hundreds of South Koreans visit a tourism enclave on North Korea's scenic east coast, and new tourism ventures are in the works.

Seoul's efforts to increase cooperation are driven in part by fears that the chaos that would accompany a political and economic collapse in North Korea would drag down its own economy. So far, the U.S. has said little as Seoul has increasingly gone its own way in dealing with Pyongyang, openly opposing any form of military or economic pressure on the regime. But hawks in Washington—and Seoul—worry that the projects spawned by cozier North-South ties are putting more money in Pyongyang's pocket, easing pressure on the indigent regime to cut a deal at the negotiating table. (Another round of multinational talks on the North's nukes is due to start in Beijing next week). Pyongyang's charm offensive in the South could have another ulterior motive. Earlier this year when Washington started to lose patience with the slow pace of nuclear talks, Pyongyang may have decided it needed an "insurance policy," says Peter Beck, head of the International Crisis Group in Seoul. "They have got to make sure South Korea is not going to jump on board with the U.S. and pursue sanctions" if the talks fail.

By agreeing to field a joint Olympic team, North Korea could be making another play to South Korean public opinion. That's fine with Seoul as long as it advances detente. But the Olympic decision won't be cost-free for the South: Seoul may have to sacrifice some of its athletes to make room for North Koreans on the team rosters. It will also likely end up footing the bills for the joint team, as it has in the past for inter-Korean sporting events. But for many South Koreans, that will be a small price to pay if it helps to achieve the Olympian goal of overcoming a half-century of division.