The two Koreas, like other divided countries, have long competed in a variety of ways, but now the nature of the competition is shifting in a disturbing direction.
By Tim Beal
Divided countries are constantly competing to prove superiority and the claim to be the true and lawful embodiment of the whole nation. This competition takes a variety of forms, and it can be benign or have a deeper and more aggressive purpose. The recent campaign by South Korea to have the North expelled from the United Nations and the associated moves by it and the United States to pressure countries ‘to downgrade or sever diplomatic and economic ties’ with North Korea are disturbing examples of the latter. To strip the government of a country of sovereign legitimacy can serve as the prelude to invasion. Here three types of competition are discussed, moving from the benign to the possibly malevolent and ending with an analysis of the latest South Korean/US diplomatic offensive.
Competition in Sport – a Benign Substitute for War
Sport is a standard virtual battleground. According to myth the Olympics were originally established, and resurrected in the 19th century, to bring about peace by providing an opportunity for non-violent, benign competition. We might deplore the excessive nationalism of the Olympic Games but agree that it is better than war itself.
The two Germanys are perhaps the best example of this. Defeated Germany was divided by the victorious allies – the US, the Soviet Union, Britain and France into four zones. East Germany was created from the Soviet zone and West Germany from an amalgamation of the other three. West Germany was not merely larger than its Eastern counterpart but also occupied what was historically the richer part of the country. More important was the devastation suffered by Germany, Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the War. Britain and France had also suffered though not to anything like a similar degree, whereas the United States had not merely escaped the destruction of war but its economy had been turbo-charged by it. War rescued the American economy from the Depression which was why, after a few worrying years of peace, the Cold War was launched and America became a ‘permanent war economy’.
All this meant that East Germany was shackled by the legacy of war while West Germany was the recipient of American aid, investment and a welcoming market on the other side of the Atlantic. East Germany was the most developed part of the Soviet bloc but could not compete with the by now richly endowed West Germany, and so it turned to sport. This fitted with the German tradition of managed development associated with the 19th century economist Friedrich List. The Nazis had used the 1936 Olympics in Berlin to showcase Germany’s resurgence from its defeat in the 1st World War.
East Germany poured resources into elite sport- the [East] German Gymnastics and Sports Union which administered the system had 12,000 employees and there were 600 track and field coaches. It was, as Wikipedia notes:
… extremely successful. From 1976 to 1988, it came second in all three of their summer Olympics, behind the Soviet Union, and well ahead of larger West Germany.
East Germany was very successful in competing with West Germany in sport, but there is another twist to the tale. Sports events can lead to fraternisation, as manifested in the Rio Olympics with the famous selfie of South Korean Lee Eun-ju with North Korean Hong Un Jong.
Fraternisation can be a dirty word – the famous football match between British and German troops on Christmas Day 1914 was viewed with horror by the British High Command; General Haig threatened the firing squad. On the other side, Corporal Adolf Hitler also disapproved. In the case of the selfie, the sports writer in the London Telegraph innocently described it as ‘a moment of heartwarming unity’; Foster Klug of the Associated Press was rather more aware that such fraternisation is frowned upon:
South Koreans are required by law to obtain government permission for any planned meeting, communication or other contact with North Koreans.
This requirement is waived for spontaneous interactions with North Koreans that can happen during foreign travel, like the Olympics. But South Koreans must still provide an account of what happened to the South Korean Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean issues, within seven days, according to the ministry.
Let us hope that Lee Eun-ju got her excuse into the ministry within the requisite seven days.
Fraternisation aside, sports competition also leads to the obvious conclusion, as described by Christine Ahn, that unity might lead to better results for both sides:
A few days later, Kim Song-Guk, a North Korean athlete, won bronze at the men’s 50-meter pistol shooting competition. Instead of expressing remorse for coming in behind gold winner Jin Jong Oh from South Korea, Song-Guk reflected, “If the two [Koreas] become one, we could have a bigger medal.”
Actually that might not necessarily be so. Without the incentive of competition fewer resources may be devoted to achieving results. This seems to have happened in the case of united Germany which has slumped in the rankings compared with the days when there were two competing teams. The two Koreas do compete but have been less successful than the Germanys in cooperating. The two Germanys fielded a united team for three Olympics – 1956-1964 – but all the Koreas have managed was a combined march at the opening ceremony at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. That of course was under the progressive presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun in the south, and Kim Jong Il in the north. Since the conservatives returned to power under Lee Myung-bak in 2008 such gestures have been abandoned and Park Geun-hye has given no sign that she has even contemplated such a thing. If you thought that the unification of Germany might provide a guide for the unification of Korea, or that when Park Geun-hye talks of ‘peaceful reunification’ she means peaceful in the normal rather than the Orwellian use of the word, then this may give you reason to think again.
How to Count Medals
One journalist was so horrified by North Korea’s early achievements at the London Olympics that she exclaimed ‘North Korea Has More Medals Than Great Britain. What’s the Secret to the DPRK’s Success?’ That North Korea was ahead of Britain at that stage (but not by the end) was due to a quirk of timing; the sports in which North Korea was strong came early. But the question about success was a good one. How do we measure success? The simplest way is just to tot up the total medals earned at each Olympics. Table 2 does this for each Korea, and the USA for comparison. It also combines the scores of each Korean team and uses this to calculate a rank for ‘Korea’. This, it should be noted is not the same as a score a unified Korea team (perhaps on the lines of the German one) would have achieved. It is almost certainly lower. Combination would have the potential of concentrating talent to field a better team, and there might have been synergies in training and esprit de corps.
Table 2 Total medals of the Koreas and USA, Summer Olympics, 1956-2016
|Year||City||North Korea||South Korea||Combined Koreas||USA||Korea rank|
Note: Korea rank is the rank of the combined Korean scores
Source: Calculated from data on website http://www.medalspercapita.com/ 3 September 2016
Despite the disadvantages of division the Koreas still have done very well, moving up into the top ten in recent decades.
However, there are other and better ways of making the assessment. The obvious one is to take account of population size and calculate on a per capita basis. It will be noticed from Table 2 that the Koreas have been gaining between a quarter and a third of the US total with a much smaller population.
Table 3 does this in respect of ‘weighted medals’. This uses a formula apparently first proposed by the New York Times, which allocates weights to the three ranks of medals: 4 for gold, 2 for silver and 1 for bronze. This probably provides a better method of assessment than total medals, which does not differentiate between the types.
Table 3: Weighted medals per capita, the Koreas and the US, 1956-2016
|Year||City||South Korea||North Korea||USA|
Weighted medals: gold =4; silver=2; bronze=1
PpM: population in millions per weighted medal
Source: Calculated from data on website http://www.medalspercapita.com/ 3 September 2016
By this calculation South Korea in general does better than North Korea, except in 1972 and 1976, and from 1988 onwards than the US. North Korea continues to do less well than the US, but the gap has narrowed.
The other obvious way to make results more meaningful and provide a more valid comparison between countries is to allow for wealth. In general we may expect that richer countries do better in the Olympics, as elsewhere, than poorer ones; they have better training and medical facilities, and they draw their athletes from a population which has better nutrition and health care. In theory that is; the reality may be rather more complex. The United States, for instance, is famous for spending more on healthcare than ‘peer nations’ but reaping lower outputs. East Germany was much poorer than West Germany but did better at the Olympics. Nevertheless, putting national wealth into the equation makes sense. It can also lead to uncomfortable results, as the Korea Times displayed with some anguish on 12 August 2016-
Fig 1: The Korea Times discovers the danger of factoring in GDP
Source: Korea Times, 12 August 2016
The Korea Times made the same mistake (or perhaps it was conscious media hype) as Slate did in the 2012 Olympics – taking a specific moment in the games when North Korea was doing well and extrapolating from that. In London North Korea was not, of course, ahead of Britain for long and something similar happened with the ‘Medals per Capita’ website that caused such indignation at the Korea Times. The website was updated daily throughout the Games, and if you went back the next day North Korea had fallen in rank and by the time the Rio Olympics was over it was down to 9th and Grenada was no 1. (Fig 2). Grenada, by the way, is the tiny Caribbean island (current population 100,000) which was invaded by Ronald Reagan in 1983 in an effort, some said, to expunge the memory of the defeat in Vietnam. Rio2016 might be thought of as Grenada’s revenge – it came top of this table and the United States 64th out of the 88 countries listed.
Fig 2 Weighted medals by GDP, Rio 2016
|48||Trinidad and Tobago||1||0||0||1||22.48||22.48|
|84||United Arab Emirates||1||0||0||1||360.25||360.25|
Table 4 uses data from this table to plot the results for the Koreas and the United States. Contrary to what the Korea Times writes, ‘medals’ in this series are weighted rather than total; in other words gold is worth 4 points, silver, 2 and bronze 1. There are a number of caveats. GDP is a very blunt albeit useful single measure for wealth. The rate at which national currencies are converted to US$ – the international standard for this measure – can make a huge difference to the apparent result. In particular the use of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) tends to narrow the difference between poorer countries and richer ones. GDP figures for North Korea are merely estimates and unreliable ones at that; they often give the impression of being plucked out of the air. It will be seen that the same figure for North Korean GDP is given from 2000 onwards. The figures for the 1970s – considerably higher than South Korea’s – are not consistent with most academic studies. For instance, Hwang Eui-gak, probably the leading South Korean authority, suggests that while the North’s GDP was higher than the South’s until 1976 it was never three times as much as this website claims that it was in 1972. Since the South’s population is twice that of the North the per capita GDP follows a different trajectory, and Hwang suggests that the North was ahead until 1985; from then on the failing Soviet economy and the continuing hybrid warfare of the US transformed the situation and today the North is much poorer than the south – but that is a subject for another time.
For all its limitations, the data in Table 4 does indicate just how well North Korea performed compared to South Korea, and even more so in comparison with the US, when wealth is factored in. By this reckoning North Korea was 4th in the London Olympics, compared with South Korea at 39 and the US at 62, and 8th in Rio, compared with 46 for South Korea and 64 for the US. No wonder the Korea Times was unhappy.
Table 4: Weighted medals by GDP
|Year||City||South Korea||North Korea||USA|
Source: http://www.medalspercapita.com/#medals-by-gdp:2016 downloaded 4 September 2016
Notes – Series not available prior to 1960. Note that since GDP figures for 2016 will not be available for some time this website uses 2012 data, although it does not state that
Abbreviations – $b: medals per $b of GDP; ab: absent; bc: boycott; MC: Mexico City; LA: Los Angeles; B’lona: Barcelona
Sport as a mode of competition between sibling parts of a divided country is popular for a number of reasons. Sport is perhaps the best surrogate for actual war outside computer games. It is visible and measurable. And it is very popular wherever you might go, from Mumbai to Melbourne, and not least in Seoul and Pyongyang. In fact North Korea has recently added a new TV channel devoted to sports, and ‘Given the popularity of sports in North Korea, it seems likely that bars and restaurants will be clamouring to get data lines installed so they can attract viewers/drinkers.’
The Race to the Stars – Dual-use Competition
Continued in Part 2
Featured News & Articles
South Korean parliamentarians and peace advocates in DC call for diplomacy and end to Korean War | After Hanoi, US re-thinks “sequencing” while North Korea considers suspending talks | CIA may be linked to attack on North Korean embassy in Madrid | US-South Korea continue annual war games under changed name.read more
President Trump’s hasty decision to pull the plug on the Hanoi Summit ahead of schedule came as a stunning surprise. The feeling of disappointment in those who were hoping for success contrasted with the sense of relief in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, which remains steadfastly opposed to any improvement in relations.read more