Nancy Gillen ©ITG

Having spent several days with World Taekwondo (WT) and the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) as they held a series of joint demonstrations in Lausanne and Geneva, I heard the phrase “peace is more precious than triumph” several times.

It was mainly uttered by the WT President, Choue Chung-won, but it is a mantra by which both the WT and ITF are operating.

The two federations, once rivals, are using their recent rapprochement to try to heal a greater divide. It will not be an easy task, for the divide in question is the one which exists between South and North Korea, originating from the Cold War. 

Even those who have paid little attention to history books know relations between the two nations have been hostile for decades. In fact, the war which started on the Korean peninsula in 1950 is still technically ongoing, with neither side ever signing a peace treaty.

Relations have improved significantly in the past few years however, a few hiccups aside. This is particularly the case in the sporting world, which has led the way in bringing the two sides together.

The Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games was a watershed moment, with athletes from both nations walking in the Opening Ceremony under a united flag. The countries also fielded a joint women’s hockey team.

Many are aware of this example of sports diplomacy, but less know of taekwondo’s role in easing relations between the two Koreas. For those wondering why the Korean conflict even affects taekwondo, WT are based in the South Korean capital of Seoul, while the ITF are traditionally rooted in North Korea, despite their headquarters being in the Austrian capital of Vienna.

North and South Korea walked under a united flag at the Opening Ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images
North and South Korea walked under a united flag at the Opening Ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics ©Getty Images

Having operated separately for more than 40 years, the two came together and signed a Protocol of Accord at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, under the guidance of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Thus began a series of joint demonstrations from a WT team made up of South Korean athletes and a ITF team of North Korean athletes. The most significant of these took place in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in November last year. This occasion saw another agreement signed, which stipulated that both federations would work together more closely with the aim of eventually merging.

This week, the WT and ITF teams performed at Lausanne's Olympic Museum in front of IOC President Thomas Bach, before doing the same at the United Nations Office at Geneva for general secretary Michael Møller.

At both events, the significance of the joint demonstration was highlighted.

In Bach’s opening speech at the Olympic Museum, he revealed the agreement signed between WT and ITF in 2014 had inspired the IOC to open dialogue with the North Korean Olympic Committee and organise the display of unity at Pyeongchang 2018.

So much of sports diplomacy can often be merely symbolic, often failing to bring about genuine change. Bach’s comments, however, show the partnership between WT and ITF is partly responsible for one of the greatest examples of sporting diplomacy.

The WT-ITF joint demonstrations have had a tangible effect on sports diplomacy on the Korean peninsula ©World Taekwondo
The WT-ITF joint demonstrations have had a tangible effect on sports diplomacy on the Korean peninsula ©World Taekwondo

Møller’s speech at the UN also applauded the organisations for their part in easing relations in Korea and the power of taekwondo in bringing about peace.

For fear of sounding too naive, I am not suggesting taekwondo will bring an end to a conflict which is too deep-rooted to be regarded in such idealistic terms.

Since the joint WT-ITF demonstrations have begun however, more and more sports are following suit and working with North and South Korea to create a united team. The IOC recently revealed the two countries wanted to send a unified team to the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in women's basketball, women's field hockey, judo and rowing.

In addition, a joint South-North Korean bid for events such as the 2032 Olympic Games and 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup have been floated, with Bach meeting both National Olympic Committees together to discuss the possibility of the 2032 bid.

At the moment then, sports diplomacy between the two countries is proving fruitful. This owes a lot to the partnership between WT and ITF, which will continue in the same vein at an even closer proximity in the coming years.