As the North and South Korean leaders hold an historic summit, read Jean H Lee on the thawing relations between the two countries—and how young southerners could ensure Pyongyang is kept out in the coldby Jean H Lee / April 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
It sounded like a brilliant idea. What better way to send a message of unity at the 2018 Winter Olympics, held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, than to field a joint women’s hockey team made up of Korean athletes from both sides of the demilitarised zone (DMZ)?
Fielding a joint team at the Olympics has been a goal for both Koreas since their first sporting experiment in 1991, a North-South women’s table tennis duo who won a gold medal at the World Championships with an upset victory over the Chinese. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the two nations competed separately but took part in the opening ceremony together, marching into the stadium under a unified Korea flag to a thunderous standing ovation. So the idea of a common Korean sporting endeavour has quite a pedigree, and yet political tensions had always restricted how far the collaboration could go.
This year, however, when a flurry of sporting diplomacy between North and South gained pace in the weeks before the Games, the government in Seoul made an executive decision: space for North Korean players would be made in the women’s ice hockey team. After all, reunification of the two nations has been official policy in South Korea since the peninsula split in two some seven decades ago. Here at last, they said, was a dream team for peace.
By the time the Winter Olympics were over in late February, South Korea had reached its highest ever medal haul. Yet Seoul is reflecting on what went wrong. Young South Koreans have caused an unanticipated uproar, castigating the government for forcing their athletes to sacrifice their Olympic dreams for a symbol of political unity. For the first time since taking office in May 2017, President Moon Jae-in—a liberal who rode into office on the support of the younger generation—saw his popularity plummet. Taken aback, he has since apologised to his voters.
The episode—and the backlash—is a telling indication that young South Koreans feel very differently about reunification than their parents and grandparents, and aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. The world shouldn’t be so surprised. To the extent that reunification is thought about beyond the peninsula, it is with the template of Germany in mind. But between the founding of the German states in the West and the East in 1949, and the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, only 40 years elapsed. It is now 65 years, an additional generation, since the bombing stopped during the Korean War. Even before that, Koreans on the two sides of the 38th Parallel had very different experiences under Soviet and American occupation.