(ATR) During the mid-1980s Ashwimi Kumar was not only a high-ranking police officer in India in charge of his country’s borders with Pakistan; he was also the Vice President of the IOC. As such in July of 1985 he became the first senior Olympic officer to travel to Pyongyang.
Juan Antonio Samaranch, then the IOC president, had sent him to North Korea to personally confirm the willingness of that country to participate in the Lausanne talks with South Korea with the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games in mind.
Today, the presence of Thomas Bach for three days in the North Korean capital creates in the Olympic world the kind of excitement that Kumar’s trip generated more than 30 years ago.
Bach has become the first IOC president to visit Pyongyang in the history of the Olympic Movement.
Bach met Friday with North Korea's president Kim Jong-un for 30-minute formal meeting followed by 45 minutes of casual discussions while watching a soccer match at Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium.
He said he received a commitment from the North’s National Olympic Committee to participate in the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020 and the Beijing Winter Games in 2022, along with the respective Youth Olympic Games.
"This commitment has been fully supported by the supreme leader Kim Jong-un in a meeting we had this afternoon," Bach said.
"I may be wrong, but I think this is the first visit by a president of the IOC to Democratic People's Republic of Korea. We had some senior IOC members go there in the course of the co-hosting discussions prior to the Seoul Games, but, so far as I can recall, Samaranch himself did not go," Canadian Richard Pound, the dean of the IOC members, said in an exclusive statement to Around The Rings.
Pound should know: at 76, he joined the IOC in 1978 and since then he has held key roles in the Olympic body with the exception of the presidency (he lost the 2001 presidential election in Moscow to Belgium’s Jacques Rogge).
In July 1987, Pound participated himself alongside Samaranch, the German Berthold Beitz and the Belgian Alexandre de Merode in what would be the fourth and final round of dialogues between the two Koreas and the IOC initiated almost two years prior. The process never reached its goal and in the end it failed perhaps by the intransigent position of the then ruler of North Korea, Kim Il -sung.
At those meetings the possibility of a "Unified Team" already emerged, a concept that instead of "Korean" would be "ex-Soviet" four years later in Barcelona 1992.
"So, this visit by President Bach is significant on that ground alone, but perhaps more significant in the context of having opened a dialogue that can be linked to DPRK recent participation at the Games in PyeongChang. There can be little doubt that before the situation on the Korean peninsula was very tense and the tension was not limited to the Korean peninsula," Pound said.
"From a political perspective, the IOC will do its best to remain neutral (which it should), but the mere fact that a dialogue has begun and continues after the Games is a welcoming development. It would not be the first time that sport has provided a bridge for political progress and the IOC is uniquely placed to provide such a bridge in the current circumstances. As a member of the IOC, I strongly encourage the continuation of this initiative."
Bach’s visit responds to an invitation from North Korea’s National Olympic Committee (NOC) extended during the discussions regarding the "Olympic Korean Peninsula Declaration" on January 20 in Lausanne, the IOC said in a statement.
That agreement resulted in the two delegations of the DPRK and the Republic of Korea (ROK) marching together as one, under the name Korea and behind one Korean unification flag, at the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. It also led to the formation of a unified women’s ice hockey team with players from the two NOCs.
Bach traveled to North Korea with Pere Miró, director of both the IOC’s Olympic Solidarity and the body’s relations with the National Olympic Committees. The IOC president meeting with Kim Jong-Un follows after the latter’s quick and surprising visit to Beijing. At the Chinese capital, the North Korean leader spoke of "the revolutionary moral obligation in the new situation of the Korean Peninsula" as he met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at the presidential banquet between both allies.
The same day of Bach’s arrival in North Korea, the North Korean Olympic Committee held a meeting in Pyongyang to discuss how to bring about a "revolutionary turn" to the national sports this year, according to the KCNA, North Korea's official news agency.
On Friday, North Korea’s Minister of Physical Culture and Sports Kim Il Guk, who is also chairman of the DPRK Olympic Committee, already met with Bach and his delegation. The IOC delegation will leave Saturday
For another IOC member, José Perurena, this visit by the IOC President is "very positive" and shows that "the sport that contributes is to unite regardless of creeds or political status."
Perurena considers that this process has been carried out "with great delicacy" and in a "very calm" way without "news boasting". The Spanish official underlines the role of the Olympic Solidarity by supporting the North Korean athletes for the last four years who have competed in the last Winter Olympic Games . Perurena speaks of "a task to which Bach has given the go-ahead and has said forward in this field shortly after occupying the presidency."
The IOC has not confirmed if in the meeting with Bach, North Korea’s Supreme leader spoke of Pyongyang's possible intentions to co-host tournaments or mega-events with Seoul.
Observers consider that new joint plans could depend on the expected summit in late April between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un . The meeting will take place in Panmunjom after more than a year of escalating tensions between both countries sparked by the North's nuclear and missile programs.
The two Koreas technically remain in a state of war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended simply in a truce, not a peace treaty.
A meeting of U.S. President Donald Trump and Kim could be on the agenda for May.
Reported by Miguel Hernandez.