For South Korea, the North is both a friend and an enemy
Like it or not, North Korea was always going to be a big part of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.Posted — Updated
How could it be otherwise, when the barbed wire and landmines of the Demilitarized Zone are only sixty miles (100 kilometers) from the Olympic ski jump?
The flurry of last-minute diplomacy running up to the Winter Games, suddenly transformed the narrative. North Koreans seem to be cropping up everywhere in South Korea by the hundreds: demonstrating tae kwon do, raising their flag in the Olympic village [a flag that is technically banned in South Korea], performing in the city arts center.
Every where the North Koreans go, they are followed by small groups of demonstrators who represent the conflicted feelings South Koreans have toward their northern cousins.
On one hand, small crowds of young pro-diplomacy people wave the white-and-blue Korean unification flag and sing songs welcoming the North.
And, usually behind lines of police in fluorescent jackets, there are angry, mostly elderly protesters waving South Korean and American flags, ripping up photos of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. That sight would be unimaginable in the North.
The site of these protests underscores one of the most dramatic differences between South Korea and North Korea. This is a democracy, where peaceful popular protests helped topple a scandal-ridden president just last year.
North Korea, on the other hand, does not tolerate any public form of dissent. It employs a vast system of gulags to enforce this authoritarian rule.
And yet, despite North Korea's draconian system of government, some South Koreans still have a deep yearning for connection with their neighbors to the North.
After North Korea's 140-member Samjiyon Orchestra performed musical standards in the city of Gangneung, Jang Ok walked out of the theater saying he'd been moved to tears by the spectacle.
"I got to shake hands and take photos with the performers!" the 52-year old railroad worker told me. "They are like family."
"I hope the Olympics can be an opportunity for more negotiations and reunification," said Won Sik-shin, an elderly audience member who was awarded tickets to the concert through a senior citizens' association.
Though they've been separated by the DMZ for more than 60 years, Koreans from north and south share common language, ethnicity, culture and in many cases familial roots.
But the last-minute push to bring Koreans together for the Olympics has also revealed the tremendous gulf that has grown since the Korean War.
This was made abundantly clear after the first public appearance of the joint Korean women's ice hockey team. After being forced to create a joint team just weeks before the games, North and South Korean athletes hit the ice in a friendly match against Sweden only five days before the opening ceremony for the Olympics.
The unified Korean team lost the game 3-0. Then coaches and players from North and South participated in an uncomfortable, somewhat surreal press conference in front of a legion of international journalists.
After reciting short, bland statements about unity, the North Korean coach and his star player walked off stage to avoid answering questions ... leaving their South Korean counterparts visibly confused.
South Korea's coach -- who happens to be Canadian -- then informed reporters that for some reason the North Korean athletes would not be allowed to live alongside the South Korean hockey players.
And then there was another surprise.
"The main problem was the language," coach Sarah Murray said.
She explained that North and South Korean terminology on the hockey rink were vastly different.
As she was still answering questions, a moderator announced to journalists that a planned photo opportunity with the joint team had now been abruptly canceled, because the North Koreans inexplicably left the stadium.
So much for Korea's forced experiment in ice hockey unity.
The Olympic stadiums for speed skating, figure skating, ice hockey and curling are all located in the northeastern coastal city of Gangneung.
Tourists may be interested in taking a sidetrip to Gangneung's Unification Park.
There, behind lines of barbed wire and military watch towers erected to defend the coast from nearby North Korea, visitors can tour a North Korean submarine. It was captured in 1996, while stranded nearby off shore during an apparent espionage mission.
A young volunteer Olympic guide working at the site informed me that his father was a coast guard officer, who spent two months during that incident hunting North Korean agents who fled the submarine.
"I'm happy that North Koreans came to Gangneung to celebrate," 19-year old Park Sin Woo explained. "But I still have some bad feelings about North Korea."
"They can be both a friend and an enemy," he said.
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