SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Koreans seem generally happy they’ll see the North Koreans at their Olympics, but aren’t as pleased about sharing a team with them.
The agreement between the war-separated rivals to field a unified women’s ice hockey team at February’s Winter Olympics has triggered a debate in South Korea, where there’s no longer strong public clamor for reunification or for using sports to make political statements.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who views the Pyeongchang Games as an opportunity to improve relations following a year of tension over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, said the unified team would provide a “historically grand moment” once it appears on ice.
Other reconciliatory gestures the Koreas have agreed to for the Olympics include a joint march under a blue-and-white “unification” flag during the Feb. 9 opening ceremony and a pair of performances by a visiting North Korean art troupe. The joint march and the unified hockey team were approved Saturday by the International Olympic Committee, which allowed 22 North Korean athletes to take part in the games in exceptional entries given to the North.
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Not all South Koreans are in the mood. There are apparently few objections to the North Korean presence at the Olympics itself, which likely ensures that the country holds off any significant weapons test or other aggressive acts that would risk disrupting the games.
Many South Koreans believe their government went too far by pushing athletes into a “political show” that will likely become meaningless once the lull in tensions breaks down after the Olympics.
Kim Hye-jin, a 39-year-old music instructor, said that South Korea was repeating an “outdated approach” in using sports diplomacy. She said that the previous unified teams and joint marches between the rivals never paved the way for sustained, meaningful engagement.
“We are always repeating meaningless things and North Korea isn’t a country that will change easily,” she said.
Plus, she said, a unified team takes away opportunities from South Korean athletes who have been working hard to prepare for the Olympics.
Heo Doo-won, a 40-year-old teacher, didn’t care for the reconciliatory gestures at all.
“Why are we doing this?” he asked. “We are clearly two different countries and it’s better if things stay that way. I don’t want a unified team or a unification flag. Why can’t we just let the North Koreans march under their own flag?”
While the liberal Moon remains a popular president nine months into his term, the controversy over the hockey team factored in his approval rating dipping below 70 percent for the first time in four months, according to a Gallup Korea report on Friday.
Many people sympathize with the South Korean athletes who would likely be sacrificing opportunities for the North’s players, who are considered less skilled and experienced. The IOC approved an expanded roster of 35 instead of 22 for the joint team, but only the normal number will be allowed to suit up for each game and three of them must be North Korean.
The South Korean team’s Canadian coach, Sarah Murray, has expressed concerns over chemistry.
“Adding somebody so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous just for team chemistry because the girls have been together for so long,” she said last week.
Choi Hyuk, a 40-year-old office worker, blamed the government for failing to properly communicate with the players and for excessively politicizing sports.
Choi pointed to the comments of Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, who was forced to apologize after saying that the South Korean women’s hockey team was out of “medal range” anyway while defending the government’s decision to create the unified team.
“South Korea’s elite sports have always been based on nationalism,” Choi said, referring to a decades-long system that rewards Olympic medal winners with lifelong cash payments and exemption from military duties that are mandatory for most able-bodied men.
“Isn’t it funny that the same country is now asking athletes to cut back on their playing time and embrace changes that would make them less likely to win?”
The reconciliation mood between the Koreas began after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year’s speech that he was willing to send a delegation to the Olympics.
Some experts view Kim’s overture as an attempt to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions against the North and buy time to further advance his nuclear weapons program. Last year, North Korea carried out its sixth and biggest nuclear test and test-fired three intercontinental ballistic missiles. It has shown no willingness to give up its ambitions.
Still, many experts think Moon’s government made the right move in jumping at the opportunity to resume contact with North Korea after nearly two years of diplomatic stalemate and animosity.
In an annual policy report on Friday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it aims to use the Olympics as an opportunity to re-establish regular dialogue with North Korea. The resumption of inter-Korean talks is crucial for the policies of Moon, who wants Seoul in the driver’s seat in international efforts to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat.
The Koreas sent joint teams to major international sporting events twice in 1991, and had their athletes march together in the opening and closing ceremonies of several sporting events in the 2000s, including the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics.
While the previous moves had little diplomatic impact, similar gestures would carry more meaning in an Olympics held on South Korean soil and amid higher stakes in regional security, said Yongchul Chung, a sports education professor at Seoul’s Sogang University.
“Fielding a unified team is very meaningful — the biggest fruit that can come from the Pyeongchang Olympics is a message of peace between the Koreas,” Chung said. “It’s not like the players wouldn’t understand the historic significance of what they are involved in.”
But it has become harder to get South Koreans excited for unified teams and joint marches when North Korea’s increasingly aggressive weapons tests and the South’s own evolvement as an economy and society continue to erode the public’s enthusiasm for reunification.
In a survey of 1,200 adults released by Seoul National University in October, 53.8 percent of the respondents said they supported the idea of reunification. This represented a steep drop from the 63.8 percent measured in 2007, when the school started the annual survey.
“I think it will be emotionally moving to watch the athletes of both Koreas march under the same flag during the opening ceremony as we come from the same nation,” said Oh Ju-yeon, a 46-year-old housewife. “But after the games, there will be bitterness from realizing that nothing’s really going to change.”