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For North and South Korea, the Asian Games that opened on Sunday in the South Korean port city of Pusan are not only an arena of competition, but also an opportunity for reconciliation. Following an earlier decision by Pyongyang to join the games, their teams paraded together under a single flag at the opening ceremony. Moreover, the sacred torch was carried from a holy mountain summit in the North that is revered by all Koreans.

These symbolic moves will reinforce the impression, both at home and abroad, that the two Koreas, still technically at war, are moving toward rapprochement. The North has sent a 660-member delegation (including supporters) to the games, the largest group of North Koreans to visit the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Many expect that friendly exchanges between North and South Koreans, including residents of Pusan, will give a fresh impetus to inter-Korean dialogue.

Such optimism is not warranted, however. One need only recall what has happened, or failed to happen, since the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. At that time Olympic teams from the North and South also staged a joint parade under a unified flag, raising new hopes for detente. Two years on, inter-Korean relations seem essentially unchanged, although signs of a thaw are increasing again.

Obviously, the basic reason for this is political. Joint participation in a major sports meet fosters a sense of unity and creates a climate of cooperation, but its contribution to inter-Korean harmony will be severely limited unless political obstacles are removed. That is the lesson of the Sydney Olympics.

Nevertheless, North Korea’s participation in the Asian Games is welcome. In early August, Pyongyang abruptly announced its decision to send its team to Pusan, confounding the prevailing view that it was almost unthinkable for North Korean athletes to compete in South Korea. To make that decision stick, however, it has been necessary, as it was at the time of the 2000 Olympics, to make a number of ingenious arrangements.

Concessions have been required on both sides. It appears, though, that the South has given more than the North. The two teams marched together under a single flag showing a map of the Korean Peninsula. This appears to have helped improve North Korea’s tarnished image as an isolated communist state. However, it will take much more than a gala sports event to reverse that image.

Reportedly officials in Seoul, the host of the games, argued at first that the South Korean flag should be used instead, but agreed in the end to use a unified flag. The South made another concession: North Korean supporters are allowed to wave their national flag. Initially this was also opposed, it is said, on the grounds that it could violate South Korea’s national security act.

By all indications, the South, more than the North, has made forward-looking compromises to bring northern and southern athletes together in Pusan. As an official of the South Korean organizing committee put it, “There have been many problems, but we have made our decisions from the broad perspective of North-South reconciliation.”

That is all to the good. But complacency is a luxury neither side can afford at this stage. Joint participation in the Pusan games is overshadowed by political calculations on both sides. That is as it should be, considering not only the harsh realities that continue to divide the Korean Peninsula, but also North Korea’s unsettling relations with Japan and the United States.

There seems to be little doubt that North Korea’s participation is linked to its ongoing efforts to promote dialogue with Tokyo and Washington. It also seems to be part of a publicity campaign designed to extract food aid and economic assistance from South Korea and other countries. That may only to be expected given the current market-oriented economic changes in the North.

Indeed, a more open North Korea, economically as well as politically, will serve the interests of all countries involved and go a long way toward regional and international stability. Hopefully, sports exchanges in Pusan will create a new opening for North-South cooperation, ultimately leading to real and lasting rapprochement on the Korean Peninsula.

In the final analysis, the most important thing about joint Korean participation in the Asian Games is to make sure that it creates a climate of mutual respect and trust between the two Koreas. Sports competition can get so emotionally charged that it can spark trouble or even violence. Given the essentially hostile relations between North and South Korea, this must be avoided at all costs.

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