The last time South Korea hosted the Olympics, North Korea tried to sabotage the event with a terrorist attack. Angered after being rejected for an equal share in hosting the 1988 event, North Korea sent two agents to blow up an Air Korea flight, killing 115 people. The attack failed to scare off athletes, and the Olympics were hailed as a victory for South Korea.
Thirty years later, times have changed on the Korean peninsula. This time around, the North is using the 2018 Winter Olympics as an opportunity to heal the decades-old rift after an extended period of frosty silence and missile tests. DPRK dictator Kim Jong-Un surprised everyone when he started off the year by reaching out to the South, and the Olympics have become the perfect symbol of renewed cooperation between the two Koreas.
Top North Korean delegates have already arrived in South Korea, including ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam as well as the first member of the ruling family to visit the South, Kim Jong-un’s sister and chief propagandist, Kim Yo-jong. The two nations have entered a joint women’s hockey team and will be marching under the Korean Unification flag, adopted in 1991 as part of a previous joint sporting effort. But with a history of such co-operation ultimately failing, will the PyeongChang Olympics have any lasting effect on relations between the two countries?
Response from South Korea and its Allies
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has taken a more conciliatory tone than his recent predecessors, with some likening his pro-peace stance to the Sunshine Policy of 1998-2008. Reactions to renewed communication have been mixed among the South Korean public. According to polls, 80% of South Koreans support engagement with the North. However, this does not necessarily extend to overtures of reunification. While some have been supportive of any move that promotes peace between the two nations, others have protested the perceived promotion of Kim Jong-un’s regime, calling the event the “Pyongyang Olympics” after North Korea’s capital city.
Allies Japan and the U.S.A. have accepted the renewed talks behind somewhat gritted teeth, warning against DPRK treachery. Vice President Mike Pence will be attending the Olympics with Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto was detained and ultimately died at the hands of the North Korean regime last year. One of Pence’s aides told the media:
The Vice President will remind the world that everything the North Koreans do at the Olympics is a charade to cover up the fact that they are the most tyrannical and oppressive regime on the planet. At every opportunity, the VP will point out the reality of the oppression in North Korea by a regime that has enslaved its people. We will not allow North Korea’s propaganda to hijack the messaging of the Olympics.
A similar stubbornness came from North Korea, which may be warming up to its Southern neighbor, but certainly doesn’t extend the same open attitude toward the U.S.
“To be clear, our delegate has no intention of meeting a U. S envoy…We have never begged for dialogue with the U.S. and our stance will remain the same in the future.” said Cho Yong-sam, director-general of the North American department under North Korea’s foreign ministry.
North and South Korea will be jointly competing with a women’s ice-hockey team; players are even sharing the same locker room to promote cooperation. The team posed for a group photo, shouting “We are one!” which also happens to be the title of a North Korean song promoting reunification across the peninsula.
The official objective of both North and South Korea is still reunification. While most North Korean propaganda focuses on adulation of the leaders and socialism, reunification is held as the ultimate goal. Among the delegation at the PyeongChang Olympics is the high-level politician and North Korean pop star Hyon Song-wol, who performed the song “Reunification Rainbow” in 1995. The relatively catchy song, at least by DPRK standards, features a video clip of two girls dancing together, one representing the South, and the other the North, under the Korean Unification Flag. Both Reunification Rainbow and We are One sing about uniting Korea from Mt. Baekdu (the northernmost mountain in North Korea) to Mt. Hanna/Halla (the southernmost mountain in South Korea).
As recently as January, Pyongyang called for “all Koreans at home and abroad” to “promote contact, travel, cooperation between North and South Korea.” North Korea’s delegate chief and chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification, Ri Son Gwon, also recently emphasized that South Korea is not at risk of nuclear attack from the North: “North Korea’s weapons are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren [South Korea].”
Undoubtedly North Korea’s vision of a reintegrated peninsula is one under the socialist regime of Kim Jong-Un, while South Korea sees itself as the obvious dominant partner in any potential rejoining. It seems unlikely that any reunification will happen unless one regime is to fall, but it appears that both parties are at least willing to co-operate.
Reunification may not be as realistic a goal as it once was, however. The practicalities of South Korea absorbing a North Korean population would now present huge economic and cultural challenges. Only 70 years after the nation split, and despite a common language, the differences between the two halves are vast. According to polls, South Koreans are increasingly more likely to view North Korean defectors as immigrants, rather than kin. While a few members of the older generations are hoping that new rounds of talks will lead to a chance for family reunions, younger South Koreans are becoming less emotionally connected to their northern counterparts, seeing shared ethnic heritage as less significant than the cultural, economic, and political divide.
Surveys by Seoul University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies indicate that, while most South Koreans still hold reunification as a vague aim, the number of people who think it’s very important have steadily declined. A generational gap has also arisen whereby older Koreans see the goal as immediate, and the youth see integration more as a goal to be fulfilled in the distant future. The motives for unification have also changed amongst the public from the nationalistic ideal, “Because we [the Korean people] are the same nation,” to the more pragmatic one, “unification is needed to eliminate the threat of war between North and South Korea.”
The Future of Korea
Whether the current dialogue between the two Koreas is the first step towards harmony or just another false start has yet to be seen. South Korea is certainly ready for communication, if not quite prepared to reunite. Questions have been raised regarding whether President Moon is being naïve in his expectations, but his intentions are genuine, and we can only hope the same will prove true of his northern counterpart. It’s virtually impossible for anyone on the outside to predict the motives of the North Korean regime, but for now, the more hopeful among us will have to be content with the chance of peace.