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The Question of a Proposed Olympic Ban

The North Korean Delegation in Rio 2016 Summer Olympics,

A country considered to be an international pariah. One that faces widespread condemnation from foreign governments, multinational corporations, churches, the media, and individuals around the world. Possessing a regime whose officials are the target of both financial sanctions and visa restrictions. A nation that is legally cut off from much of the global arms trade, and whose economy is the subject of repeated trade sanctions by the international community. And yet, a country that is not named North Korea. The preceding description, in fact, describes the reality that existed for the Republic of South Africa (RSA) throughout much of the second half of the twentieth century. Due to its infamous system of apartheid, which since its implementation in 1948 legalized numerous forms of racial discrimination, the country had bore the brunt of the many actions taken by states and global institutions that are recounted above.1 In addition to these, however, another decisive form of action was taken to punish South Africa for its unapologetic and determined stance towards racial segregation.

After refusing in 1963 to comply with an ultimatum put forth by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) asking South African officials to publicly denounce racial discrimination in sport, the country was subsequently banned from the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.2 This was the beginning of what turned into a thirty-two year Olympic absence for the country, as it was banned by the IOC from all of the Olympic Games between 1964 and 1988.3 South Africa started to compete once again in the Olympics at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, a year after the country had repealed all of its laws related to apartheid.4

South Africa’s reputation as a nation has obviously come a long way since then. Following the end of apartheid, the country was bestowed the honor of hosting the 1995 Rugby World Cup.5 It became the first major sporting event to be held in the RSA post-apartheid and the international sports boycott.6 Then in 2004, only thirteen years after the official end of apartheid, soccer’s governing body FIFA awarded South Africa the right to host the 2010 World Cup.7 In the process, it became the first African nation to be granted the privilege of hosting the famed sporting spectacle. It is fairly safe to say then that the country’s dark days as a global outcast are now well behind it.8 Its policies changed (mind you, stubbornly), and as a result, so too did its international reputation. But how much can any of this change for South Africa be attributed to the Olympic ban that the country faced for over three decades? Of course the answer to this question is debatable, however, the answer and its implications just might become substantially more relevant in the years ahead if a policy prescription made by a United Nations official at a recent conference in Seoul comes to fruition.

The United Nations’ special rapporteur on North Korea, Marzuki Darusman, suggested at a conference on North Korean human rights in Seoul this past October that barring North Korea from international competitions like the Olympics could be an effective means of changing its behavior on human rights.9 Darusman stated his belief that ethically-motivated sanctions like a sporting ban on North Korea are needed in order to apply additional pressure on the regime in the wake of other human rights related measures.10 For instance, the recent decision by South Korean lawmakers to enact the country’s first North Korean human rights act, and Washington’s resolution to put Kim Jong Un on a human-rights offenders list.11 And as it has so happened, his proposed measure would also buttress the two respective resolutions adopted by the UN this past November and December that have explicitly linked the human rights situation in North Korea to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.12 Although at the time the organization that he represents had not implemented the two resolutions, Darusman advised during the conference that banning the country from sporting competitions like the Olympics could be a powerful means of compounding these latest coercive steps and giving North Korea a strong supplemental push onto the path to human-rights reform.13 Any which way, this development certainly begs some reflective thought from North Korean watchers. Most importantly, it begs us to think about whether or not such an action would actually yield its desired outcome as stated by Mr. Darusman. Simply put, would banning North Korea from world sporting competitions like the Olympics actually lead to better human rights conditions for the country and its people? Answering this question shall be the intended endeavour of this piece. The South African case will be used as the analytical backdrop for the discussion, as North Korea of today and South Africa of the 1960s and 70s evidently possess some uncanny similarities regarding how they have been treated and perceived by the international community. For this exact reason, it is expected that many lessons from the South African case can be used to predict the effectiveness of any potential Olympic ban, were it in fact ever applied to North Korea in the future.

Right off the top, it is worth first pointing out that North Korea is a country that deeply cares about sport. Sport, simply for the purposes of recreation, is a popular activity amongst the nation’s people. And while this may be so, sport also matters to the North Korean regime much more importantly as a key diplomatic outlet. According to Udo Merkel, the author of multiple academic papers on North Korean sporting culture and diplomacy, the country uses sport to “encourage an alternative discourse about the country abroad”.14 North Korea thus views sport as a way to positively shape attitudes about itself within the international community. In 1986, Kim Jong Il even stated outright that, in addition to being used as a form of recreation, sport should be used by the country as a public relations tool.15 Kim Jong Un reiterated this message of his father in a 2012 speech made shortly before the London Olympic Games titled, “Forward to the Final Victory”, where he equated North Korea’s sporting success to its national dignity and pride.16 Implying that sport is a crucial way for the country to gain respect for itself at home and in the eyes of nations abroad. With this in mind, being banned from the Olympics would seemingly be a heavy price for North Korea to pay for its countless human rights abuses. The Olympics are unquestionably the premiere sporting event in the world, with undeniably the greatest platform available for international sport diplomacy, which is regarded as a relatively “safe” form of diplomacy that can be wielded more flexibly than others. If North Korea were to be barred from participating, it would lose access to this cherished diplomatic channel for the country. In this sense, the cost may likely be so steep that it could be capable of inducing action on human rights from the regime. In return for action, the regime would seek reinstatement into the Games. A rather simple and straightforward exchange it would seem. South Africa’s experience with the Olympic ban, however, would advise us to curb any optimistic enthusiasm we might have regarding such a possible outcome.

According to Rosner & Low, authors of The Efficacy of Olympic Bans and Boycotts on Effectuating International Political and Economic Change, South Africa was a nation that was also “wildly enthusiastic about sports and the Olympic Games”.17 And yet in spite of this fact, and despite its unrelenting desire to be reinstated by the IOC, South Africa ultimately cared more about keeping apartheid than it did about participating in the Olympic Games.18 Although the ban by the IOC, which was one facet of the overall international campaign encouraging the RSA to improve its deplorable human rights situation amongst the non-white population, did manage to gradually yield minor policy amendments from the country, they were largely superficial in nature.19 For instance, when a month after the 1976 Olympics South Africa allowed white club teams to play non-white club teams, or in 1979 when a decision was made to allow a non-white tennis player to compete on the country’s Davis Cup team.20 Such changes simply attempted to curry the favor, though albeit unsuccessfully, of the IOC and international community and did not intend to fundamentally improve the country’s human rights situation. In this sense, the Olympic ban, and the larger international campaign of which it was an integral part, only resulted in a “facade of change”.21 As Rosner and Low sum it up, “the ban...did not compel South Africa to alter its sports policies, and it was not a primary factor in the eventual downfall of apartheid”.22 So in other words, when forced to choose between genuinely improving its human rights policies or preserving apartheid, South Africa opted in favour of the latter. And thus, the ban was predominantly uncompelling. The ban for North Korea would presumably be no different. Apartheid was implemented due to the fears of a white minority in the country slowly losing its grip on power, and therefore was essential to the survival of its National Party-led regime. For North Korea, its regime’s survival today is, at the very least, as dependent on oppressive human rights offences as apartheid was for South Africa’s; given that the RSA government had at least some democratic credentials among the white population upon which it could claim authoritative legitimacy. Under this logic, one can reasonably assume that North Korea, if given a similar choice that South Africa faced between participation in the Olympics and the continuation of its human rights abuses, at a minimum North Korea would accept the ban and its consequences as ardently as South Africa did. Which is to say that ultimately such a ban by the IOC would be ineffective in improving the human rights situation within North Korea. This is not the only reason to expect this hypothesized outcome, however. For other lessons from the South African case exist to temper any undue optimism the international community might have about the capacity of an Olympic ban to induce enhanced human rights in North Korea.

As alluded to above, banning South Africa from the Olympics did provide the country with reason for pause about its own domestic situation, and in response it did make some cursory changes in order to improve its standing with the IOC. In one instance, after the South African minister of sport at the time finally admitted that “play and sport are strong enough to cause political and economic relations to flourish or collapse,” a policy referred to as ‘multinational sport’ was introduced.23 This policy, for example, allowed Maori players on the New Zealand national rugby team to now join their teammates on tours to the RSA.24 All of this was a direct result of the sports boycott that made South Africa acutely aware of the importance of sporting relationships as a measure of its international standing.25 An international standing that the country realized had increasingly been deteriorating. For present-day North Korea, however, one must wonder whether the country has any international standing to lose at this point. While international isolation evidently took its toll enough on South Africa to cause its regime to implement minor policy changes, the same would likely not be the case for North Korea. Contrary to the RSA of decades past, the DPRK today in many ways thrives on its isolation from the international community and its reputation as a disparaged outcast in order to amass domestic support amongst its people. For the North Korean regime under Kim Jong Un, the adage ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ certainly rings more true than it did for the National Party during its apartheid days. While the DPRK regime craves international recognition, it does not seem to care much about whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Unlike most nations of the world, North Korea tends to be immune from the ostracism and denunciation that is often used by the international community to coerce their fellow nations to change. Instead of hurting it, rather, in many cases the action seems to have the opposite effect that is intended. In this way, the North Korean regime is comparable to the modern day phenomenon that is United States President-elect Donald Trump, in that the more they are condemned, the stronger they seem to get! So when considering the question of whether the loss in international standing that would accompany an Olympic ban would encourage the North Korea to improve its human rights practices, the most conceivable answer would have to be no. The authoritarian nation neither has nor cares enough about such a concept for its removal to induce change. If anything, it may even revel in a more ostracized international position.

What’s more, in the South African case, the Olympic ban could not be hidden from the general public, as censorship did not exist in the country in any way like it does today in North Korea. As Rosner and Low point out, “following the expulsion of South Africa from the Olympic movement and other organizations, South Africa was unable to hide its status as an international pariah from [its] population”.26 The South African people were thus keenly aware of the ban and the disgrace that it brought upon the country’s international reputation. This civic awareness indeed acted as a source of shame for the regime and as a point of protest for those South Africans opposed to the ongoing rights abuses against their government. Although the majority of athletes were afraid to speak out against the various racially discriminatory practices that were occurring in the country at the time, there of course were instances where these injustices were challenged and pressure was placed on the regime by the South African people.27 And even in spite of this, the ban was still largely unable to prompt meaningful changes in South Africa’s human rights practices. With respect to North Korea, however, not only is it highly doubtful whether the greater public would be willing to challenge its government in the event of the country being barred from the Olympics, it is uncertain whether the wider North Korean public would even gain access to news of the ban in the first place. Information dissemination within the country is undeniably easing, yet tightly controlled censorship is assuredly still very widespread. The ability for news of an Olympic ban that would embarrass the regime, therefore, to travel both quickly and accurately amongst the country’s people would be dubious at best. If news of the IOC’s action failed to reach the majority of North Korean citizens as it did South Africans, another potential influencing effect of the ban would be all but negated. The ban would neither exist as an overt source of shame for the regime amongst its people, nor would it serve as a potential area of political dissidence from the North Korean public towards its regime. Once again, all of this points to the reasonable assumption that banning North Korea from the Olympics would even be less effective for improving human rights in the country than it was in the case of South Africa.

Lastly, the probability of the IOC even implementing a ban on North Korea, regardless of whether or not it would be effective in prompting change, should be discussed. The case of South Africa highlighted the general reluctance of the IOC to become involved in ethically-subjective disputes and bar nations from competing in the global sporting celebration that is the Olympics. For one, when the committee sent a fact-finding mission to South Africa in 1967 to learn more about the country’s practices of racial segregation, then IOC president Avery Brundage made it abundantly clear that its sole purpose was to determine whether or not the South African National Olympic Committee (NOC) was in violation of the Olympic Charter, and not whether the IOC approved or disapproved of apartheid.28 It wanted to avoid at all costs the perception that it was taking a morally principled stance against apartheid and meddling in South Africa’s domestic political affairs. Despite apartheid’s almost universally decried status at the time, the IOC was still evidently hesitant about involving itself in such a politically-sensitive matter. And two, following the conclusion of the fact-finding mission and the task force’s realization that the nature of South African racial segregation practices in its sport were even worse than originally believed, the IOC nevertheless initially voted to allow South Africa to compete at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on the condition that its team be multi-racial.29 The IOC only eventually banned South Africa after international outrage arose that was spearheaded by the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa (SCSA), which threatened to boycott the Games if South Africa had been allowed to compete.30 The IOC thus withdrew South Africa’s right to participate in the Olympics almost exclusively as a result of international pressure, and not it seems out of any particular conviction the committee may have had. These two facts of history both point to the probability that the IOC would not be willing to implement a ban of North Korea from the Olympic Games, even if one could somehow prove that the punitive action would be meaningfully effective. And this probability almost becomes a certainty when we consider the recent resolutions and rhetoric coming from the UN which has sought to tie human rights to nuclear issues in North Korea.31 As mentioned above, two recent resolutions by the world body have explicitly acknowledged the link between the two areas in question. As well, UN delegates have recently come out and made statements arguing for the importance of recognizing the entwined nature of human rights and nuclear-related matters.32 U.S. Ambassador and special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, Robert King, stated at a recent panel discussion hosted by the Japanese delegation to the UN that, “The struggle for human rights, I would argue, is not just a struggle for human rights in its is a struggle for security as well.”33 He added that, “a regime that puts the well-being of its people below its acquisition of nuclear weapons will not hesitate to use nuclear weapons on others.”34 Irrespective of whether what King said is true or not, by inextricably tying the issues together, these recent developments have made the prospect of a North Korean Olympic ban all the more politically-charged, and therefore its coming to fruition all the less likely. Though it is somewhat reasonable to think that the IOC could ban North Korea from the Games based on one of the country’s human rights violations that contravene the Olympic Charter, there is seemingly no reason to expect that the IOC would be willing to involve itself in an issue linked to nuclear weapons. It was reluctant enough to take action against apartheid, which essentially had a global consensus of critics. North Korea’s nuclear issue, in comparison, would be much too controversial for the IOC to ever take action on. Even if the committee had been willing to implement an Olympic ban under the sole pretense of human rights, with the matter now linked to the nukes, the IOC would risk the perception from the international community that it was making a subjective political judgement on North Korea’s nuclear situation. Such a decision, if it were made, would fly in the face of what history tells us the IOC would most likely do. Which would be to avoid appearing politically-motivated in its decision-making and to avoid taking decisive action on topics of controversy. It seems from the South African case that the only chance of an IOC ban on North Korea ever being implemented would be if the international community joined together in significant numbers to apply substantial pressure on the organization. Until then, the prospect of Mr. Darusman’s proposition becoming a reality indeed looks rather glum.

Everything considered, banning North Korea from the Olympics would in all likelihood fail to bring about improvements in the regime’s human rights practices. Despite the importance of the Olympic Games as a key outlet for the DPRK to express itself through sport diplomacy, the lessons learned from an Olympic-banned apartheid South Africa call into serious question the potential effectiveness of such a measure in bringing about its desired outcome. For the Republic of South Africa, the ban only managed to induce what Rosner and Low referred to as a “facade of change” that was largely void of meaningful changes to South Africa’s regrettably racist policies.35 For North Korea, the conditions appear to be even less favorable for inducing positive developments. The regime’s survival today is at a minimum as dependent upon human rights abuses as the National Party-led South African regime was on apartheid’s racially discriminatory policies. The country lacks the sufficient amount of care for its international standing to entice the regime to change in order to preserve it. Information dissemination in the DPRK is still presumably too closed for news of the ban to reach the wider North Korean public, and thus exist as a source of shame for the regime or a point of protest towards the regime from the people themselves. And the ban, even if an expectation of its effectiveness could be proved, would in all likelihood never be implemented by the IOC due to its inclination to avoid becoming involved in contentious political matters. All of these points, especially in juxtaposition to the South African case, would lead us to logically conclude that the proposed Olympic ban by UN special rapporteur to North Korea Marzuki Darusman would be ineffective in creating an improved human rights situation in the DPRK. Not least of which because the ban would likely not come into effect in the first place. This question of banning North Korea from the Olympic Games is likely anything but over, however. As with the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympic Games being held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the prospect of the DPRK being barred from competing is one that is only likely to become more sensitive and tense in diplomatic circles. It is fair to say then that the question of an Olympic ban on North Korea is a debate that will predictably heat up before it cools down.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


1 Douglas Booth, “Hitting Apartheid for Six? The Politics of the South African Sports Boycott,” Journal of Contemporary History 38(3), 477-449, (2003).

2 “1964: South Africa banned from Olympics,” BBC News, August 18, 2005,, accessed October 15, 2016.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Robert Mitchell, “Rugby World Cup History: South Africa,” Last Word On Sports, July 6, 2015,, accessed December, 18, 2016.

6 Ibid.

7 “South Africa gets 2010 World Cup,” CNN, May 15, 2004,, accessed October 15, 2016.

8 For more information regarding South Africa’s improved international reputation, refer to such measures as the Nation Brand Index and the Global Competitiveness Index.

9 Elizabeth Shim, “North Korea could be banned from sporting events, U.N. official says,” United Press International, October 13, 2016,, accessed October 15, 2016.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ariana King, “Diplomats tie human rights issue to nukes in North Korea,” Nikkei Asian Review, December 3, 2016,, accessed December 18, 2016.

13 Shim, North Korea could be banned from sporting events.

14 Udo Merkel, “Flags, Feuds and Frictions: North Korea and the London 2012 Olympics,” The International Journal of the History of Sport 30(15), 1810-1822, (2014), p. 1810.

15 Merkel, Flags, Feuds and Frictions, p. 1816.

16 Ibid.

17 Scott Rosner and Deborah Low, “The Efficacy of Olympic Bans and Boycotts on Effectuating International Political and Economic Change,” Texas Review of Entertainment and Sports Law 11(1), 27-80, (2009), p. 68.

18 Rosner and Low, The Efficacy of Olympic Bans, p. 62.

19 Rosner and Low, The Efficacy of Olympic Bans, p. 68.

20 Rosner and Low, The Efficacy of Olympic Bans, p. 69.

21 Rosner and Low, The Efficacy of Olympic Bans, p. 68.

22 Ibid.

23 Booth, Hitting Apartheid for Six?, p. 480.

24 Booth, Hitting Apartheid for Six?, p. 481.

25 Booth, Hitting Apartheid for Six?, p. 482.

26 Rosner and Low, The Efficacy of Olympic Bans, p. 68.

27 Booth, Hitting Apartheid for Six?.

28 Rosner and Low, The Efficacy of Olympic Bans, p. 61.

29 Rosner and Low, The Efficacy of Olympic Bans, p. 62.

30 Ibid.

31 King, Diplomats tie human rights issue to nukes in North Korea.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid.

34 Ibid.

35 Rosner and Low, The Efficacy of Olympic Bans, p. 68.

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