Categorized | North Korea, slider, South Korea

From Colonial Korea to United Korea in the Olympic Games

By Seok Lee

After the Panmunjom Declaration, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Jong-un and President of the Republic of Korea Moon Jae-in held an historic North-South summit in Pyongyang from September 18 to 20, 2018. They discussed a broad range of topics such as nuclear weapons, demilitarization, the economy, and family reunions and agreed to develop peace and common prosperity in a consistent and sustained way. In this historic summit, most mass media paid attention to the security issues that has been haunting the Peninsula for around 70 years. However, one of the interesting clauses in the declaration is that the North and South agreed to cooperate on a joint North-South bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics.

South Korea has been a sporting powerhouse in the Olympic Games. Since the 1984 Summer Olympics, South Korea has consistently ranked in the top 10 Summer Olympic medal count. The opening of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics provided an opportunity for South Korea to become the fifth nation to host the world’s four biggest sporting competitions: the Summer Olympics, the Winter Olympics, the FIFA World Cup, and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships in Athletics.

Since the 1980s, the Olympics have provided an excellent opportunity for South Koreans to boast of the power of the Korean nation, a nation that had been largely absent from the world stage since its annexation by Japan in 1910. But Korea’s Olympic history extends beyond South Korea’s recent success at the Games to the colonial period. Although they were officially Japanese, three ethnic Korean athletes—Kim Ŭnbae (Marathon), Kwŏn T’aeha (Marathon), and Hwang Ŭlsu (Boxing)—participated in the 1932 LA Games and were acclaimed as national heroes, being the first Koreans in the nation’s history to compete in the Olympic Games.

Among colonial Korea’s sports stars, Son Kijŏng, the winner of the 1936 Berlin Olympic marathon, stands out as an unsung hero. His gold medal evoked the rabid national sentiment in his fatherland. The Tonga ilbo and the Chosŏn chungang ilbo, the representative Korean vernacular newspapers of the time, blotted out the Japanese flag on his sweatshirt in a photograph of Son on the awards podium, reflecting most Koreans’ national sentiment. The “Japanese Flag Erasure Incident” (Ilchang’gi malso sakŏn) provoked the brutal punishment of the reporters responsible by the Japanese colonial government. Many of them were tortured, put in jail, and laid off.  This story resonated with heroic Korean nationalism and became a part of Korean (sports) history. Indeed, it is still engraved in Koreans’ memory today as the culmination of Korean resistance against Japanese colonialism through sports. In addition, we should not overlook Korean participants other than Son. Before Son’s race in Berlin, three Korean speed skaters—Kim Chŏngyŏn, Yi Sŏngdŏk, and Chang Usik—participated in 1936 Garmisch-Partenkirchen Winter Games. In Berlin, Nam Sŭngnyong (Marathon) won a bronze medal. Kim Yongsik (Soccer), Yi Kyuhwan (Boxing), Yi Sŏnggu (Basketball), Chang Ijin (Basketball), and Yŏm Ŭnhyŏn (Basketball) should be added to the list of Korean Olympians during the colonial period.

The Nazi Games were not the end of colonial Korea’s Olympic fever. The 1940 Olympic Games were awarded to Tokyo by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1936. The Japanese empire hoped to host the games to deflect international criticism of its bellicosity caused by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and also to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the legendary founding of the Japanese empire by Emperor Jimmu (kigen) in 660 BCE, thereby enhancing nationalism. As soon as Tokyo won the bid, colonial Korea was quick to make the best use of the Olympics for its own sake. The Olympics were not only about sports, but also about a variety of social concerns in colonial Korea: transportation, national security, tourism, and sports facilities, among others. The colonial government and Japanese leadership took the initiative in designing a master plan for welcoming international visitors to propagate a positive image of its colony. Interestingly enough, the colonial government in Korea designed similar schemes that were discussed by Kim and Moon at Pyongyang such as the improvement of railway system across the Korean Peninsula linked to Manchuria and tourism at the Mount Kumgang resort to attract foreign tourists from Europe.

Sports ties between the two countries in the Olympic Games during the Cold War period mirror their rocky political relationship. The two Koreas have competed hard with each other in most sports tournaments including the Olympics. North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics amid Cold War rivalry. One year before the 1988 Games, a South Korean passenger plane was bombed by North Korean agents wanting to disrupt the Seoul Olympics, killing all 115 people aboard.

Having said that, the Olympic arena has granted the two Koreas a place for a peaceful relationship.  Even though it did not work well, the first official governmental meeting between two sides after the Korean War (1950-1953) were the Lausanne South-North Korean sport talks of 1963. The 59th IOC General Assembly in Moscow June, 1962, recommended that North and South Korea should participate in the Olympics as a unified team. North and South Korea first marched together under the same flag at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney as a sign of the detente on the divided nation. At the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the two Koreas combined their women’s hockey teams: the first joint Korean squad in any sport in Olympic history.

What a coincidence! The year of 2032 appears to be memorable to both Koreas: the century of the Korean athletes’ first participation in the Olympic Games. The tumultuous trajectory of the Korean sports history may finally have a happy ending in North-South Korea Olympic Games. The biggest sporting festival in 2032 will not just be for national liberation or defeating a Cold War enemy, but also for promoting peace in the world, the true spirit of the Olympics.


Seok Lee is the Associate Director of the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Maciek Lulko’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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