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South Korea's 'peace Olympics' fail to please all

Fabian Kretschmer
January 25, 2018

As South Korea readies to host its first Winter Olympics, not all locals are happy that North Korean athletes will also be involved. DW spoke to some of them to find out why. Fabian Kretschmer reports.

BG Zehn Gründe Südkorea | Pyeongchang,
Image: picture alliance/YNA/Air Force

It was a matter of honor for Bae Seong-han, a 40-year-old man from a suburb in South Korea's capital Seoul, to spend his winter vacation with his wife and children in Pyeongchang.

The site of this year’s Winter Olympics is located about 130 kilometers east of the capital and at 700 meters altitude.

Standing at the foot of the Alpensia ski slope, Bae views the site where athletes will soon be competing for medals. But on this icy January day only his two seven-year-old twins are racing through the snow - on neon yellow plastic sleds.

"When I was my sons' age, the Summer Olympics were held in Seoul," Bae said, recalling the 1988 event.

Due to sluggish ticket sales, the government then distributed tickets to primary schools. That's how I was able to get in, which in retrospect was a decisive experience," he noted.

For the first time since the 1950-53 Korean War, the world was looking at South Korea - an emerging economy whose population had only recently wrenched free elections from the hands of a military government.

Thawing ice

This year, however, it is the South's northern neighbor that is making the headlines.

Just a few weeks ago, North Korea was considered a Sword of Damocles, threatening the success of the Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang. Now it is being heralded as a partner in an event that is about far more than just sport.

Joint Korean women's ice hockey team moves closer

Some foreign sports federations were very uneasy at the idea of ​​sending athletes to Pyeongchang, just 80 kilometers south of the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas. Laura Flessel, France's sports minister, even considered boycotting the games last September. 

But since his New Year speech, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un has turned the tables - and landed a PR coup. During their first joint talks in two years, the two Koreas agreed not only to the North's participation in the Olympics, but also that they would field a joint women's ice hockey team in the tournament.

The International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) is also encouraging the two sides to come up with a joint four-man Bobsled team.

Bae, though, is upset. "To be honest, I don't even know what the North Koreans are expecting from these Olympics. After all, it's all about the sport and they have rather middle-ranking athletes."

In fact, only one North Korean figure skating pair has qualified regularly, with the remaining participants relying on International Olympic Committee (IOC) wildcards.

"We are not very involved with North Korea," he says.

South Korea's center-left government, however, has welcomed the sporting-diplomatic advances of the North with open arms. President Moon Jae-in even speaks of these as symbolic "peace games," which could represent a historic turning point on the Korean Peninsula.

At present, nobody in Pyeongchang seems to be worried about a military conflict during the games. Student Han Eun-hee, meanwhile, believes North Korea's participation is a good thing in principle.

As a volunteer, the 19-year-old will feed social media with photo snapshots and funny anecdotes during the games. "Our generation basically does not engage much with North Korea and most people do not want reunification," she said.

Many of her peers worry, above all, that reunification would bring huge casualties. "However, I do believe it is a good thing in the long term," she stressed.

Read more: 

What to expect from North and South Korea meeting ahead of Winter Olympics

North Korea calls for unification in rare statement to 'all Koreans'

Driven to distraction

A stone's throw away is the beautiful neighboring village of Daegweollyeong: single-storey brick houses line traffic-calmed streets with a frozen brook running through the center. The restaurants serve "Hwangtae" - salmon, which is hung out in the winter to dry in the mountain wind.

A 53-year-old local, Kim Ik-ne, believes the village idyll has little to gain from the event. He and his colleagues are sitting in the local taxi office, drinking powdered coffee from paper cups and waiting for customers. "Usually we make most sales during the winter season," he says in his heavy local dialect.

Kim wears tinted glasses, his face marked by deep furrows. "This year, however, there are hardly any tourists, because the ski resort is closed to the public, and for us the Olympic Games are, above all, a big minus," he said.

And what when the visitors to the games finally arrive?

"The IOC has organized over a thousand shuttle buses to the nearest train station, so we are barely needed," he says. His colleagues nod silently.

Korea: History of a divided nation