In a move that may be designed to replicate the global “coming-out party” that was the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the two Koreas announced today their formal intention to jointly host the 2032 Summer Olympic Games, according to an agreement reached between the two sides today.

North Korean Vice Sports Minister Won Kil U and his South Korean counterpart, Roh Tae-kang reached an agreement on the move at the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, North Korea. The office was established as a bilateral communications center by the two states earlier this year, as part of their ongoing reconciliation process. The two sides will begin sending appropriate documentation to the International Olympic Committee, (IOC), according to pool reports from Kaesong.

At the same meeting, the two Koreas also agreed to form unified teams for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

The 2024 Summer Olympics are being held in Paris and the 2028 Games will be in Los Angeles. Germany, Australia, and India have all expressed interest in hosting the 2032 games; the bid competition takes place in 2025.

The idea of making a joint bid for the 2032 Olympics was first raised at the September summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, and was welcomed by IOC President Thomas Bach.

However, IOC officials could not be reached for comment on today’s development.

No Olympics has yet been shared between two countries, though the IOC is in favor of the concept, partly as a cost-sharing arrangement. It seems likely, given the size of their respective economies, that the cost burdens would be shouldered largely by South Korea.

The IOC would have to overlook the massive political risks involved. The ongoing North-South engagement process is far from set in stone, and the denuclearization process between North Korea and the US is frozen, but the IOC may yet look favorably upon what would be an unprecedented achievement of sports diplomacy.

Seoul has broad experience of hosting huge international sports events, notably the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 2018 Winter Olympics. It also co-hosted the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup.

Olympic Game Changer

The Olympics have particular resonance for South Korea, which has twice seen the Games act as an agent for change.

In the lead up to the 1988 Summer Games, South Korea was under authoritarian rule. As it geared up to host the “greatest show on earth” the country was shaken by nationwide pro-democracy protests that attracted worldwide exposure and led to speculation that Seoul might lose the Games.

In 1987, the year prior to the event, ex-general and President Chun Doo-hwan finally bowed to public pressure and agreed to one-man, one-vote elections. That heralded the advent of full democracy in Korea.

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In the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Games, nationwide student riots forced the South Korean government to embrace democratic reform. Photo: Ron McMillan

“The general consensus is, if not for the Seoul Olympics, authoritarian rule could have gone on,” said Go Myong-hyun of Seoul think tank the Asan Institute. “The incentive of hosting the Seoul Olympics pressured the regime to relent.”

Upbeat views of the Games were reinforced this year, when North Korea  – unexpectedly and at the last minute – agreed to attend the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. That ignited the process of cross-border reconciliation, of which today’s announcement forms a part. The Games have been re-branded “The Peace Olympics,” in South Korea.

North Korea boasts some excellent sport facilities, such as Pyongyang’s 114,00 capacity May Day Stadium, and is building upmarket leisure facilities at Wonsan on its east coast.

It has hosted a handful of international events, notably the 1989 World Festival of Youth and Students and the International Taekwondo Federation Junior Championships in 2000. It has also welcomed a handful of European football teams, and even a US pro-wrestling show in 1995. The Pyongyang marathon, with international competitors, takes place most years.

Difficulties and aims

Whether a state as totalitarian as North Korea could be coaxed out of its shell by the Olympics is far from clear.

Massive question marks hang over the ease with which global visitors could cross the Demilitarized Zone, the most heavily-fortified frontier on the planet and one that has been largely, albeit not entirely, closed for decades.

Whether Koreans would be able to freely enter and travel within each others’ countries is another question. In the limited number of inter-Korean visits conducted on both sides of the border since the 1950-53 Korean War, visitors have been herded into carefully overseen groups, visiting only locations specified on tightly-controlled itineraries.

The overall concept of the planned bid appears to be strategic: Moon Jae-in’s latest ploy to tempt North Korea out of isolation and into the international community.

“Moon is trying to shape North Korean expectations of the future, he is consistently showing a vision for North Korea,” said Go. “There are so many steps in between, but hosting the Olympics would be a prestige project – and North Korea always seeks prestige.”