A joint bid by North and South Korea to host the 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games may have stumbled on a hurdle Friday.
From Seoul, AP has reported that North Korea has removed its staff from a joint-liaison office near the demilitarization zone separating the two countries that are still technically at war. Officials in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang have explained that they were acting on ‘higher level’ instructions.
The office, set up in September, was tasked with working towards a peace settlement.
The move is considered to be a reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent condemnation of apparent new activity at a North Korean nuclear site, and the U.S. enforcement of sanctions Thursday on two Chinese companies doing business with the North.
The renewed tension between the United States and North Korea comes after talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and Trump ended without a denuclearization agreement in Vietnam last month.
The office had been the centrepiece of reconciliation efforts between the two countries that began to materialize early last year when the North Korean leader sent a team of athletes and cheerleaders to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, and a unified Women’s ice hockey team took to the ice.
That was followed by promising high-level talks with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and President Trump with the aim of improving diplomacy among the nations.
Officials have also leveraged sport to ease tensions and promote peace, including an agreement for the North to send teams to the Asian Games in 2018, and discussions that would have unified North and South Korean teams participate at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, and at other events.
A joint bid to host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup was launched this week among nine nations competing to stage the event.
But the most notable joint effort has been the launch of a Seoul-Pyongyang 2032 Olympic bid that could compete against several other nations before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selects a host in 2025. Delegations from the North and South met with IOC officials including President Thomas Bach in Lausanne, Switzerland last month for a working session.
“The discussions at the working meeting today are one further step showing how sport can once more make a contribution to peace on the Korean Peninsula and the world,” Bach said following the historic meeting.
With so many hurdles facing the Olympic bid, and so much change required in North Korea before nations would be willing to send athletes to compete, any stall in the peace process is damaging.
Seoul’s estimated budget to host the Games in 2032 is USD $3.44 billion, but that number is contingent on a joint effort with Pyongyang. It is unclear whether the South Korean capital would be willing to make a bid on its own, but the southern port city Busan was turned down by the Korean Sport and Olympic Committee (KSOC) to co-host with Pyongyang, and it could be called upon to share the effort in 2032.
New IOC rules created by its Agenda 2020 reform package would allow sports to be contested in separate cities.
According to reports, the South Korean government has left the door open for North Korea to return to the office to re-engage in discussions, but North Korean officials said they will defer any future communications to Seoul.