Mixed responses over unified Koreas team for PyeongChang ceremony
Confirmation at the weekend that a unified North and South Korean team will march together at the opening ceremony of next month’s winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, while South Korea’s women’s ice hockey team will include some North Korean athletes, has provoked mixed reactions around the world and in South Korea.
These include: pride at the ability of the Olympic Games to provide a possible peaceful solution to an apparently intractable political conflict (there were even calls for Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee’s president to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize); claims that the move undermines the Olympic spirit by taking advantage of a sporting event for political purposes; and concerns that South Korean women ice hockey players will miss out as a result of the late drafting into the team of North Korean players.
In a statement issued on Saturday, the IOC announced that North Korea “will participate at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018. Under the ‘Olympic Korean Peninsula Declaration’, the IOC will grant accreditations to the NOC of the DPRK for 22 athletes in 3 sports and 5 disciplines.”
These comprise 22 athletes, 24 officials and 21 media representatives. The sports concerned are ice hockey, skating and skiing.
The IOC said that the joint women’s ice hockey team would be created by “adding 12 players and one official from the NOC of the DPRK to the existing ROK Olympic squad of 23 players. With respect to fair play and the other competing teams, only 22 players will be entitled to play in each game, as is the rule for all participating teams.”
However, an online South Korean petition opposing the joint ice hockey team has already attracted over 46,000 signatures, with most of those that have signed it arguing that it is unfair that (South Korean) athletes who worked to participate in the Olympics will be sacrificed on behalf of North Korean athletes who were not originally eligible.
A senior government official responded by telling reporters that the Korean peninsula “is experiencing a very happy situation and atmosphere now compared to when there was the threat of war.
“I would like it if people looked at the larger ‘forest’ here, which is that we’re heading toward the ‘Peace Olympics’ we were hoping for and discussing participation by North Korea, which seemed unthinkable in the past.”
Meanwhile, Na Kyung-won, a South Korean politician and member of the PyeongChang organising committee came under fire after sending a letter to the IOC demanding a reconsideration of parts of the agreement.
She said in a release: “I sent a letter to explain that expanding the number of entries only for the South-North joint women’s ice hockey team violates the Olympic spirit of fair competition. It is hard to accept that some of the South Korean players will lose their qualification to enter in the games.”
She also claimed that North Korea is trying to use the Olympics to legitimise its communist regime, in breach of the political neutrality stated in the Olympic Charter.
However, by today over 100,000 South Korean citizens had retaliated by signing online petitions calling for her removal from the organising committee.
South Korean protesters led by the far-right Korean Patriots Party Conservative today burned a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the North’s national flag, in a rally against its participation in the games, saying: “The PyeongChang Winter Olympics is turning into ‘Kim Jong-un's Pyongyang Olympics’ that effectively recognises its nuclear armaments and propagates the North Korean regime.”
Similarly, the opposition Liberty Korea Party said in a statement: “The [South Korean] Moon Jae-in administration has given up the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and declared it the Pyongyang Olympics.”
The ruling Democratic Party responded: “The Liberty Korea Party should refrain from making statements that insult the residents of Gangwon Province [where PyeongChang is located] as well as the people who have been making various efforts for a successful PyeongChang Winter Games and Paralympics for many years.”
Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, said today that the Olympic breakthrough should lead to talks between the two Koreas and USA over the North’s nuclear weapons programme. He said that South Korea had been handed a “precious chance to open the door” for a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue and establishment of peace on the Korean peninsula.
Bach said: “The Olympic spirit is about respect, dialogue and understanding. The Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 are hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean peninsula, and inviting the world to join in a celebration of hope.
“The Olympic Games show us what the world could look like, if we were all guided by the Olympic spirit of respect and understanding. This is the Olympic message that will go from PyeongChang to the world.”