North Korean participation in this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea has a special place in the history between the two nations. The peninsula of Korea divided in 1945 following WWII. Tensions rose, igniting the Korean War, during which the United States came to the aid of South Korea. Since then, North Korea has become an isolated nation-state, not allowing its citizens to leave its borders and granting them little to no access to outside news or information. President Trump’s Twitter wars with North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong-un, and mutual threats of nuclear war have done little to ease tensions.
Speculation and doubt surrounded North Korea’s participation in the games. Nearly a month prior to opening ceremonies, it was confirmed that North Korea would send 22 athletes to Pyeongchang, including 12 athletes who were added to the South Korean women’s ice hockey team. Along with the participants, North Korea is sending their most popular all-female pop band, an assemblage of nearly 100 cheerleaders and, most surprisingly, Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong. She serves as a high ranking official under Kim’s governmental regime and is the first immediate family member of the dictator to travel to South Korea. All actions from North Korea thus far appear to be working towards a more amicable relationship with its southern counterpart.
The big news coming out of the opening ceremonies is that the two countries walked in the parade of nations as one, under a unified Korean flag. This is not the first time North and South have united in the Olympic arena; the last time was the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. But much has changed in 12 years regarding political climate and global standing amongst the two states. Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as supreme leader of North Korea in 2011, and the nation has since invested heavily in nuclear and ballistic power, maintaining its aggression towards its southern neighbor and the United States. The unified march in this year’s games, as well as Kim Yo-jong’s handshake with South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, signifies an attempt at peace and diplomatic exchange between the divided nation-states.
Although these efforts seem to be positive, some have expressed concerns and distaste for the sudden immersion of the North and South at the Olympic games. For the women’s ice hockey team, it was an enormous adjustment to add 12 new members just weeks before Olympic competition. Head Coach Sarah Murray explained the difficulties the team has encountered regarding language barrier and lack of practice amongst the team. North Koreans are not allowed to learn English, which the South Korean team uses English often for various hockey terms such as “pass” or “block shot,” creating a significant stumbling block for team communication heading into the Olympics. Another drawback to the addition of North Korean players is the effect it has on many South Korean players, who worked exceptionally hard to make it on the Olympic team and will now have playing time compromised. Thousands of South Koreans signed petitions calling for President Moon Jae-in to recall the plan to integrate the women’s hockey team.
Despite disapproval from many South Koreans regarding the unification of the two Koreas under the Olympic rings, a large number of southern citizens expressed exuberant joy at the thought of solidarity. Some have even drawn comparisons to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, which, they argue, was the beginning to the end of the Cold War, with the Berlin Wall coming down just a year after the games. Pyeongchang 2018 has the potential to be the turning point for relations between North and South Korea, at least in the hopes of President Moon Jae-in. Thus far, relations appear positive, and focus remains on the future, but as the weeks and events move on, medals are awarded and opportunity for diplomatic conversations arise, all eyes will remain on where North and South Korea will go from here.