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Saul Gitlin Headshot

The Power of Ping Pong

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Other than at the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula, the closest proximity that Americans and North Koreans have recently found themselves is in South Africa at the World Cup. Of course there are some huge differences. In Korea, the proximity is characterized by a 50+ year face-off of opposing ideologies and armies who have a history of direct, armed conflict, and still remain on constant alert for potential war. In South Africa, though, it has been civilian athletes from the two countries rotating through the same stadiums in what is an admirable expression of human rivalry: competitive sports.

Hmmm... this reminds me of something.

In 1971 at the 31st World Table Tennis Championship in Japan, the American player, Glenn Cowan, had a chance encounter with the Chinese player, Zhuang Zedong, and casually commented that given the opportunity, he would be happy to visit China. At that time, the United States and China had no formal contact, and China was very much a 'closed door' for all Americans. But the China of 1971 -- a nuclear nation with a history of armed conflict with the United States (the Korean War), governed by a paramount leader (Mao), in the midst of internal political turmoil and accompanying anti-American rhetoric (the mid-years of the Cultural Revolution), and experiencing a growing rivalry of political and military cliques around the issue of succession -- quickly responded and agreed to the visit. We now know that Mao, himself, gave the final authorization.

The following week, a delegation of 15 Americans, including champion ping pong players, spouses, and a few accompanying officials, entered China for one week to tour and play exhibition games. Today, historians recognize this visit as a definitive, pivotal moment of 'thaw' between the United States and China -- one that sidestepped a discussion of arms, armies, and diplomatic recognition, but which still paved the way for the rapidly increasing contact between the two countries that immediately followed.

So, this past Monday, as the North Korean soccer team confronted Portugal in Capetown, I couldn't help joining their South Korean compatriots in rooting for them. Although the North Koreans lost to Brazil earlier in the Cup, they certainly showed skill and tenacity, and I wanted them to have the opportunity to move forward -- particularly as I anxiously thought about what a second loss might mean for them personally upon their return to North Korea.

But more than that fear, I also thought about the ping pong 39 years ago, and I let my mind wander to a more grandiose fantasy. Perhaps the US team would advance further in South Africa (which they did on Wednesday), and President Obama would announce that he would personally go to Johannesburg to support our athletes. Upon hearing this, Nelson Mandela would invite Kim Jong Il (or his representative if Mr. Kim wouldn't fly) to come to South Africa in recognition of his team's participation in the games, and to watch the Cup finals. And, perhaps, just perhaps, the North Korean visitors could have a 'chat' with Mr. Obama when they are both in town. Who better than Nelson Mandela to host such a 'chat' -- a man who was sent to prison for 27 years by his enemy, the oppressive apartheid regime, but who ultimately used dialogue to negotiate his release and an end to that regime? And, because men do love to watch sports together, there might even be an opportunity for Mr. Mandela to invite a few extra 'friends' -- Mr. Hu from Beijing, and Mr. Medvedev or Mr. Putin from Moscow.

OK... admittedly, this vision is really over the top. But had the North Koreans advanced, there could still have been a 'chance' encounter with the American athletes somewhere in Africa -- a passing in the stadium, a casual comment, an unexpected, behind-the-scenes personal exchange between players from the two countries which, in an echo of 1971, would remind the whole world of the humanity that lies behind every seemingly insurmountable political and military conflict.

Of course, North Korea lost this week. But maybe we should not think about this game as 'over.' Why not let the US and North Korean teams engage after the World Cup? Let's invite the North Korean team to the United States (or if they won't come here, maybe a third country -- perhaps China) to compete in a series of exhibitions, while clearly expressing our interest to send the US team to Pyongyang to reciprocate. Both teams can be accompanied by their "officials" or "guides," but the focus of such visits will remain on non-diplomatic interaction and sport. At a time of complete impasse between the two countries, such player-to-player engagement will definitely NOT solve the complex political and military issues at hand, but it might relieve some anxiety and tension... a 'crack in the ice.' We know this has been done before, and successfully. If soccer is not ideal, we can consider other sports -- particularly basketball which is rumored to be a favorite within the younger generation of the North Korean ruling Kim family (e.g. the soon-to-be-anointed 'heir'). Diplomacy by Kobe or Lebron, anyone??

Some politicians, academics, and pundits will say that the situation in North Korea, and within its leadership is different, thereby precluding such an approach. They may argue that any informal engagement -- sports or otherwise -- would lead to nothing more tangible, and would only be distorted by the North Koreans to achieve an internal propaganda coup. They may also claim that the ping-pong analogy is not wholly appropriate, given that the Chinese had already signaled their receptivity to dialogue with the US prior to the US team's visit in 1971 (notably, via a statement made by Mao to the American journalist, Edgar Snow, in 1970), and back-channel discussions were already underway between the Nixon administration and Beijing. Such views may be right, but they may also be wrong.

The lesson of history is clearly that the unthinkable IS thinkable, and we have already witnessed many unanticipated, dramatic changes in the last few decades -- between Israel and Egypt, in Eastern Europe, in South Africa, in Libya, and elsewhere.

So, when all else has failed to-date with North Korea, why not pick up our ping-pong paddles and try to serve?