SEOUL, South Korea, Aug 12: Despite a continuing nuclear standoff and virtually no interactions between each other politically, some North and South Koreans are making an exception — among their athletes at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
The countries' interactions in Rio began when South Korea's 17-year-old gymnast Lee Eun-ju took a selfie with North Korea's Hong Un Jong earlier this month on the sidelines of their competition and training.
It is Lee's first Olympics, while Hong was the first North Korean female gymnast to win a gold at the 2008 Beijing Games. The picture quickly became one of the iconic Olympics photos, with IOC President Thomas Bach describing it as a "great gesture."
On Thursday, North Korean shooter Kim Song Guk walked up to South Korean rival Jin Jongoh and shook his hand moments after Jin clinched his third straight Olympic gold in the men's 50-meter pistol.
Kim, who took the bronze in the event, and Jin, exchanged a handshake again at the medal podium.
"If we (the two Koreas) become one, the medals we win will have bigger meaning. If we become unified in the future, the first place and third place (medals) would all belong to (one) Korea," Kim said.
South Korean archery gold medalist Chang Hye-jin also said she developed friendly relations with North Korean archer Kang Un Ju, who she said called her "eonni," a Korean word used when a woman refers to an elder sister or friend.
"I talked briefly with Un Ju the other day; she asked how I shoot so quickly, and also some stuff about equipment," Chang told South Korean reporters, days before her win in the women's individual event.
It's not the first time athletes from the Koreas have had this type of interaction, even though their governments formally bar their ordinary citizens, divided along the world's most heavily fortified border since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, from exchanging phone calls, letters and emails.
South Korea requires its citizens engaged in spontaneous interaction with North Koreans during foreign travels to submit reports about the meeting within a week. But Seoul doesn't ask for such reports for athletes at international sporting competitions like the Olympics because it's too obvious that their purpose of participating in the events has nothing to do with meeting North Koreans.
Pyongyang's state media hasn't reported about the interaction at Rio. But South Korean analysts say the North appears to be allowing its athletes to behave more freely and interact with their South Korean counterparts in a bid to improve its external image as it grapples with multiple international sanctions imposed over its weapons programs.
"It would be impossible for North Koreans to talk and act in that way without government direction and strict internal guidelines," said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Seoul's Dongguk University. "What we are seeing from North Korean athletes in Rio is a result of choreography."
At the height of Cold War rivalry, sports were often another battle field between the Koreas. North Korean medalists often ignored South Korean competitors who extended their hands for handshakes at podiums. North Korea also boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics, both held in Seoul.
After the end of Cold War, the divided Koreas occasionally used sports as a way to thaw relations. They formed a single table-tennis team for a world championship in Japan in 1991 and won the women's doubles title. That year, they also fielded one team for a world youth soccer championship and reached the quarterfinals.
Athletes from the two Koreas marched together in the same uniform under the blue and white "unification flag" during the opening ceremonies of several major international sports events, including the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.
Reconciliation efforts were later put on hold due to North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Earlier this year, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test and a prohibited long-range rocket launch, inviting tougher U.N. sanctions and worldwide condemnations. Seoul and Washington also announced last month they would place an advanced U.S. missile defense system in South Korea, and Pyongyang responded by warning of unspecified "physical" counteractions and firing several missiles into the sea.
More weapons tests by North Korea are expected later this month when U.S. and South
Korean troops begin their annual drills that Pyongyang calls an invasion rehearsal.
There are no reports that officials of the two Koreas might use the Olympics as a chance to resume talks. Choe Ryong Hae, one of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's close associates who had been in Rio to watch games, left Brazil on Wednesday without meeting any South Korean officials, according to South Korean media reports.