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Kim Jong Un taking cues from Hitler's 1936 Olympic strategy

Jung Kyo Jin, Research Professor, Korea University  |  2018-02-14 15:52
The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesnt separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. Thats why the Olympic Flame should never die.

The above quote may at first glance seem like an inspiring message of the power of the Olympics to bring peace and unite the world around sport. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly though, is that they are the words of Adolf Hitler, referring to the Olympic torch relay, itself a concoction of chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels for the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympic Games. Hitler played the role of master showman and an "ambassador of peace," and even shook hands with now-revered Korean athlete Sohn Kee Chung, who was competing under the flag of Japan at the time. 

Through the 1936 Olympics, Nazi Germany forced the world to question whether Hitlers intentions had been misinterpreted. But just 3 years later, Hitler plunged Europe and eventually the world into World War II. 

The international community may therefore be more wary of despots trying to take advantage of international sporting events to spread deceptive propaganda. 

South Koreas so-called "Peace Olympics," aims for the simple goal of carrying out a "successful Olympics," but runs the risk of a similar hijacking of its message by North Korea. At the time of the Berlin Olympics, those familiar with the Nazis tried to call the world's attention to their deeper concerns but were largely ignored, and some critics were written off as trying to "sabotage the peace." As Hitler ramped up his rhetoric of 'world peace' surrounding the Olympics, global opinion followed by internalizing the idea of the Berlin Games as a "festival of peace." Later, when the world was embroiled in war, those who had warned of the danger of the Nazis were left to ponder why their warnings were not heeded. 

It remains to be seen how the situation will unfold after the Pyeongchang Olympics. While many hope that worries over North Korea's actions will dissipate, a closer look at the situation suggests that such concerns are well founded. Unfortunately, those who wish to air concerns regarding potential dangers run the risk of invoking public backlash. This recently occurred in South Korea when, citing concerns, conservative Liberty Party politician Na Kyung Won, who is also a member of the South's Olympic Organizing Committee, sent a letter to the International Olympic Committee asking them to revoke their approval of the North's participation in the Games. In response, a public petition was created on the website of the Blue House calling for her removal from the committee. As of February 12, this petition had become the largest such petition on the Blue House's website, amassing over 345,000 signatures. But Na's comments are a reflection of the efforts of an historical figure against whom these very signatories may not realize they now stand opposed. 

Nelson Mandela and human rights activists in South Africa and around the world successfully campaigned to have their own country banned from the Olympics in the 1960s, arguing that as long as the country maintained the policy of apartheid, they would be technically disqualified from participating in the Olympics. They pushed the issue by creating a petition and suing the International Olympic Committee, forcing them to act. South Africa was subsequently barred from the games until their institutionalized system of racial discrimination was abolished in 1991, leading to their first appearance in decades at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Nelson Mandela went on to become the leader of South Africa and a lasting hero for human rights activism worldwide – a true ambassador of peace. But how does history compare with the Norths participation at Pyeongchang?

North Korea is launching a major "peace offensive," via the performances of its arts troupe and cheerleading squad at the Olympics, as well as in the sending of Kim Jong Un's younger sister Kim Yo Jong as part of their high-level delegation to the Games. As they continue to promote a message of peace, the international audience is becoming swayed by it. 

But if North Korea actually wants peace, why have they not been more enthusiastic about promoting the "Peace Olympics" message domestically? Why haven't we seen North Korean media or public events welcoming the Olympics in recent weeks? Instead of a welcoming message, there were only the familiar calls for "advancing towards (North-led) unification," "thriving business under (North-led) unification," a "revolutionary all-out offensive," and "completing the socialist revolution." It is clear from these actions that the North likely does not intend for their domestic audience to receive any of the overtures towards "improving inter-Korean relations" through the Olympics which they have promoted so heavily toward the South Korean audience. 

North Korea's calls for peace are nothing but lip service. This was evident again after the Samjiyon Orchestra's performance in Gangneung last week. While the group played songs that are also popular in South Korea such as "Nice to Meet You," they also played the clearly political song "My Country is the Best," which is full of propaganda for the North's system. "Finally, our music can move the people to tears in South Korea," North Korean state-run media proclaimed afterwards, further revealing their intentions. From such statements, we may expect that the Pyeongchang Olympics will become another case of an Olympic peace offensive' following in the footsteps of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Views expressed in Guest Columns do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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