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Shaming North Korea

Author: Paul B. Stares, General John W. Vessey Senior Fellow for Conflict Prevention and Director of the Center for Preventive Action
May 30, 2010
Los Angeles Times

The lack of good options to punish North Korea for the unprovoked sinking of a South Korean warship that cost the lives of 46 sailors is causing much hand-wringing. Military retaliation risks precipitating another Korean war, while additional economic sanctions and U.N. condemnations will only work if China agrees to giving them real teeth, which it won't. What is there then to deter North Korea from doing something similar again?

North Korea's apparent impunity is very likely what its leader, Kim Jong Il, calculated when he authorized the attack. There is, however, another––so far unexploited––pressure point on North Korea that Kim probably didn't consider: its upcoming participation in the World Cup soccer championship.

Soccer is North Korea's No. 1 sport, and after qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 44 years, there is much anticipation — to say nothing of national pride — that it is competing with the very best teams in the world. International soccer is one of the few activities of the outside world--perhaps the only one--that North Koreans are allowed to follow.

Ejecting North Korea from the tournament does not look promising. FIFA, the soccer world's governing body, believes strongly that politics and sport should not be mixed, though it did once ban South Africa during the apartheid era.

Cutting off TV coverage to the North is also likely to be futile. Although a South Korean company owns the broadcast rights to both Koreas, China's state-run television probably would fill the breach. Such action also would likely play into Kim's hands by reinforcing his propaganda that the world, and especially South Korea, is out to get the North.

A different, more subtle strategy is to let North Korea watch the World Cup, and to see not only their beloved national team but also the condemnation of the world. As the largest sporting event on the planet with an estimated "cumulative" TV viewership of 35 billion to 40 billion--yes, billion--people, the World Cup offers an unparalleled stage for shaming and further isolating North Korea.

This could take various forms. Although FIFA prohibits players from using their "compulsory equipment" for political or religious statements, discretionary items are not covered. Thus teams or individual players could wear black armbands or wristbands, perhaps emblazoned with the number 46, to signify solidarity with the bereaved.

The Iranian soccer squad did something similar when some of its players wore green wristbands in a game to show their support for the opposition movement after the fraudulent 2009 national elections. FIFA, interestingly, did nothing to sanction the team and actually sent a formal note of inquiry to the Iranian authorities after ominous reports surfaced that the players wearing the wristbands had been "retired."

Such public protestations needn't be confined to the games that North Korea play--though coincidentally, they are sure to be high-profile events. North Korea happens to be competing in the so-called Group of Death against Brazil (the No. 1 team in the world), Portugal (its nemesis in one of the most famous World Cup games) and Ivory Coast (arguably the best team in Africa). This alone will garner hundreds of millions of viewers around the world. Other teams in other groups, not least those from South Korea, the United States and Japan--to say nothing of spectators with placards--could also make known their displeasure.

The meaning of these protests may initially be lost on those watching in North Korea, but word could eventually spread, particularly among the elite. The millions of viewers in China may also wonder why their government is so supportive of a regime that the rest of the world vilifies. The ultimate effect of a global shaming of North Korea is unpredictable, but similar campaigns have proved effective. Certainly, it would make Kim Jong Il and others like him think twice before contemplating such a heinous act again.

Paul B. Stares is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and director of its Center for Preventive Action.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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