At the tail end of September, in a tiny arena in a skiing town near Germany’s Bavarian Alps, two North Korean figure skaters put in the performance of their careers to earn qualification for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Kim Ju-sik, 25, and Ryom Tae-ok, 18, glided across the ice — to “Je ne suis qu’une chanson,” an anthem by Canadian diva Ginette Reno — and logged a career-best total score of 180.09 points.
Two months later, Pyongyang test-fired a Hwasong-15 missile, boasting that it was capable of striking the continental United States. Then, in his New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un spoke of a “nuclear button” on his desk that put “the whole territory of the U.S. within the range of our nuclear strike.” U.S. President Donald Trump responded in kind, boasting of the size and potency of his own nuclear button.
In a year of saber-rattling and nuclear brinkmanship, the two figure skaters — the only North Koreans so far to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea — provided a rare glimmer of positive news from the pariah nation. This Tuesday, diplomats from Seoul and Pyongyang met at the border-straddling town of Panmunjom for the first high-level talks between the countries since 2015. Top of their public agenda: Olympic cooperation.
North Korea has won a total of 56 medals since it first participated in the Olympics in 1964 and two of those have come at the Winter Games, the BBC reports. But beyond the tables and tallies, sports competitions have provided opportunities for both rupture and repair in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Here is a look at how sport and politics have intersected — at times with tragic and even deadly consequences — on the Korean Peninsula.
The attack on Flight 858
When South Korea’s capital Seoul was awarded the 1988 Summer Olympics in 1981, it caused consternation on the other side of the DMZ. Pyongyang initially campaigned to co-host the competition with Seoul, the BBC reports. But when that didn’t work, North Korea not only boycotted the games — it used terrorism to try and sabotage them.
In a shocking bid to deter foreigners from traveling to the games, two North Korean agents planted a bomb on Korean Air Flight 858 in November 1987 The plane exploded above the Andaman Sea, killing all 115 people onboard.
“I was told by a senior officer that before the Seoul Olympics we would take down a South Korean airliner,” surviving assassin Kim Hyun-hui told the BBC in a 2013 interview. “He said it would create chaos and confusion in South Korea. The mission would strike a…