2018 Winter Olympics puts South Korea in uncertainty

Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor Credit: Anna Boyle/Art Editor
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With the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympics fast approaching on Feb. 9, South Korean society has mobilized at an effort to successfully host 50,000 participants and staff from 95 countries at the winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. From the continuous hard work of the 129-member organizing committee to the thousands of volunteers who have dedicated countless hours to the training and preparation of the event to the ordinary citizen eager to welcome an international crowd to their home country, the past year for Koreans has been one of a common mission and purpose.

The observed general unity, however, is an oversimplification of the social sentiments revolving around the Olympic games. Since 2011 when PyeongChang was selected as the host city, there has been much debate surrounding the broader goal of hosting such an event. Government officials have argued since its inception that the Olympics would promote peace in the region, creating opportunities for the two Koreas to hold talks and to display to the international community that the peninsula is one of peace and not one of conflict. Such a discussion about the role of the Olympics in relationship with the two nations has revealed a creeping divide within Korean society about relations with the North.

This growing divide among Koreans has much to do with an increased presence of a conservative political faction, led by the Liberty Korea Party, and a generational gap that has become increasingly out of touch with much of Korean contemporary history — a story of divided families, a divided economy, and most significantly, a divided nation that has worked arduously to position itself in the 21st century and has struggled greatly to seek a unique South Korean national identity.

Such an increased internal divide has not been well-documented in Western media, yet the evidence of its existence can be most patently seen in South Korea's response to Kim Jong Un's New Year's Speech.
"North Korea's participation in the Winter Games will be a good opportunity to show unity of the people and we wish the Games will be a success," said Kim in his address. "Officials from the two Koreas may urgently meet to discuss the possibility."

While for many this was a message of hope — a historic stepping stone for reunification of the two Koreas — others saw this as an act of deception, driven by ulterior motives and a desire to take the spotlight away from South Korea. The Moon administration's seemingly all-embracing cooperation with the North — the hosting of reunification talks, the welcoming of North Korean athletes, performers, and officials, and an agreement to field a joint women's ice hockey team, to name a few — has been met with both support and criticism.

"Maintaining peace between the North and South is the most urgent issue," said Park Cheol-hyun, in an interview with Channel News Asia, who came to cheer on the debut of the joint women's ice hockey team with his family last Sunday. "It's important to achieve that through the Olympics and I think the unified team is very meaningful."

Meanwhile, on Jan. 22, groups of protesters gathered at Seoul's central train station protesting the decisions made by the administration with banners reading, "We're opposed to Kim Jong Un's Pyongyang Olympics!" The backlash has been accompanied by a seven percent drop in President Moon's approval ratings.

While I empathize more with the optimists, believing that the Olympics could indeed spark a period of increased collaboration with the North, I do have my hints of doubt about the motives of the Kim regime. Many experts have offered a wide array of explanations on Kim's sudden change in tone, such as attacking South Korea's relations with the U.S., presenting the North as being cooperative at an attempt to relieve U.N. sanctions, or buying time to produce more nuclear weapons in midst of a crippling North Korean economy.

However, though I do not associate myself with the social conservatives in the South, I comprehend the complaints and criticisms of many of the Moon administration's agreements with the North. It seems to me that, after decades of a tumultuous and emotionally-draining history of the South, there now exists a more evident and unique South Korean identity. It is an identity fueled by a story of perseverance in light of conflict and division, military coups and dictators, and extreme economic hardship. In this context, some of the administration's decisions — which have been made in the name of furthering efforts at reunification — may seem to have gone too far in disregarding this new national identity: for instance, the flying of a flag of the Korean peninsula instead of a South Korean flag or the fielding of a joint women's ice hockey team instead of a full South Korean roster.

The administration, therefore, must be well-aware of this precarious situation. Indeed, the support for reunification still remains strong amongst South Koreans, and Moon still reigns a solid 66 percent approval rating. However, a moderate approach is necessary in these heated times, and the more apparent South Korean identity must be respected and recognized.

As for the average South Korean, like me, who does not really know how to feel about these changes, we will cheer on both the North and the South Korean representatives in all their sports endeavors at the upcoming PyeongChang winter Olympic games.