I remember watching the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics with my parents around the T.V. No one in my family followed any sports, but they did tune in to major sporting events such as the Olympics. It was that year of the Ohno incident, where American short track speed skater Apolo Ohno was awarded Gold after a South Korean skater was disqualified due to a foul. I didn’t think much of it, but remember that the fact a gold medal was “stolen” seemed to enrage a lot of South Korean people. They felt cheated. The South Korean skater came in first, but the medal was awarded to an American skater who called foul because the games were in his home country. I remember as a child, people referring to Americans as ‘Yankees’ and viewing the Bush administration as a whole in a negative light. Coupled with existing political tensions, a small incident such as a foul on a medal can stir up a series of events.
The Winter Olympic season is upon us once again this year. The Winter Olympics are being held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and will host a total of 102 events over two weeks. Although the Olympics are a celebration of athletic ability, it has always been coupled with political agendas from various countries around the world. This year is not too different, with North Korea and Russia making the headlines rather than the actual athletes.
The last time the Olympics were hosted in South Korea, North Korea wasn’t too happy. It was the biggest media event in the history of South Korea since the war, and North Korea demanded that 11 of the 23 Olympic sports be carried out on its territory, and also demanded special opening and closing ceremonies. Its demands were not met, and North Korea responded with a bombing of a Korean Air Boeing 707 which took the lives of 115 passengers. They wanted to disrupt the South Korean government and cause instability for the upcoming Olympics.
This time around, North Korea gets to join South Korea on stage as it welcomes nations from around the world. The two Korean governments agreed this past month to carry a single unification flag at the Winter Olympics this year, which seems to be the main headlines in the news and social media. This would be the biggest broadcast event in Korea since the last Olympics. They sent around 500 musicians and cheerleaders in support of the event, all waving a unification flag showing a united Korea. Kim Jong Un’s younger sister was in attendance, shaking hands with the current South Korean president.
As Korea is a ethnically homogeneous country, its easy to see why there would be easy support for the initiative. However, our idea of unification is significantly different from the North’s, and given their past history, its not hard to be skeptical of their intentions.
Growing up in Korea, I felt like unification was always a hot issue. While I wasn’t born early enough to feel any direct impact of the Korean war and separation of our country, it was always discussed in textbooks and by the media. We were told that the North Koreans were misguided, and under Soviet and Chinese influence. I remember it along the lines of general MacArthur (his name is huge there) launching a heroic backdoor amphibious assault on the North, recapturing Seoul and driving back the evil communists. The cease-fire treaty was signed to prevent further escalation into a World War III, and under Soviet influence the North was separated from the South. The North Korean people continue to live in poverty under a dictatorship, and we must liberate them from the Kim family.
While it’s a great story and it seems like we do have a lot more freedom than our neighbors, the North wasn’t educated in the same manner. In fact, they’re educated to believe that Korea is under U.S. occupation, just as it was under Japanese occupation before World War II. They call it the “U.S. Occupation Era” and believe that their duty is to liberate their southern bretheren from the evil United States, just as we believe they are under the Kim family rule. The North have more than 1.2 million active soldiers, and a further 7.7 million in reserve, making it one of the largest military forces in the world. Around half the country’s population is enlisted in the military, and they are all educated with the same goal in mind.
Personally, with such history, I don’t believe that an united sporting event can be the answer to our problems. The Olympics gives the host countries an unparalleled amount of media attention and a chance to showcase their nation as a whole. The Tokyo Olympics showcased the economic boom of post-war Japan in 1964, and the 1988 Seoul Olympics did the same. I feel North Korea wants to join in on the festivities to be seen as a stable, diplomatic country, in order to lessn U.S. sanctions temporarily and improve its controversial image. Even while waving the same flag, the goals behind the flag are completely opposite of one another. Unification is a shared goal of the Korean people, but we must also remember that the North’s idea of unification is completely different than our own. With two weeks of the Olympics ahead of us, we’ll see what lasting effects the games have on the two Koreas.
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