South Korean Games offer some North-South unity under shadow of war

The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang has been dubbed the 'Peace Olympics'

This winter has been extremely cold in South Korea, with temperatures regularly reaching well below -10°C — perhaps another sign of climate change.

One of the coldest places has been Pyeongchang, a small town in Gangwon Province, which is just south of the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea that is set to host the Winter Olympics over February 9 to 25.

These Winter Olympics come 30 years after the Seoul Summer Olympic games of 1988.

South Korea’s current political situation is unique. Former president Park Geun-hye, who was supposed to open the international competition, is now in jail awaiting sentencing. Lee Myung-bak, another former president, is also waiting to be summoned by the prosecution after his involvement in illegal bribes and other irregularities was uncovered.

North Korea

Internationally, the games come as the conflict between North Korea and the United States over the North’s nuclear missile program has been heating up. US President Donald Trump has unleashed a barrage of verbal threats against North Korea recently, with the North responding with a series of missile launches.

Within this hostile conjuncture, events took an unexpected turn when North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un, in a January New Year speech, expressed his desire for a successful Winter Olympics that could enhance the prestige of the entire Korean nation. Shortly afterwards, follow-up measures were taken towards North-South cooperation to make these games a “Peace Olympics”.

North and South Koreans began official talks. Decisions were made to exchange delegations, hold joint exercises and cultural performances, and form a united women’s ice hockey team at the initiative of the International Olympics Committee (IOC).

Thus, at least during the Olympics period, peace rather than conflict will prevail. The historic tradition of a ceasefire during Olympic Games appears as though it will be repeated.

While the Olympics may not be able to shut Trump's dirty mouth completely, they might manage to deliver a long-forgotten message of world peace.

Backlash

Improved relations between North and South Korea have been one of the priorities of the government of President Moon Jae-in, which emerged out of the 2016-17 candlelight protest movements. Moon was elected last may on a platform including support for peaceful reunification of North and South Korea.

However, the conflict between North Korea and the US has hindered moves to ease tensions and pursue a peaceful solution to the Korean crisis.

Moon’s diplomatic manoeuvre around the Games has worked. Trump has been forced to accept South Korea’s initiative for cooperation with North Korea during the Winter Olympics, despite the international sanctions on the North.

Conservative opposition parties have tried to find faults in the government’s approach to North Korea. They claim the government made too many concessions to North Korea, which they alleged is using the Olympics to avoid ever-tightening economic sanctions. Extreme right politicians have angrily asked whether the games were being held in Pyeongchang or Pyongyang.

Popular opinion in South Korea overwhelmingly prefers peace to conflict. Recent developments between North and South Korea are generally viewed in a positive light, although most do not support Kim Jong-un’s regime or its persistent development of nuclear weapons.

However, on the issue of the united women’s ice hockey team, there has been an unexpected response from younger generations that has surprised the government. Online, quite a few young people have expressed their opposition to the proposed united team and shown support for young South Korean female ice hockey players who might lose the chance to compete.

In face of unexpected criticism, Moon apologised for not taking young female players into enough consideration. This episode reflects the harsh realities that younger generations are faced with: insane competition, high youth unemployment, growing social polarisation, and little hope and growing uncertainty for the future. Unlike among older generations, national reunification is not viewed as an absolute good, and, for many, North Korea is just another country that happens to speak a similar language.

North Korean refugees in South Korea have welcomed the recent national dialogues and cooperation. However, their realities are harsh as well. They are generally struggling to survive, with the exception of the few who are able to work for the National Information Service (NIS).

Failure to adjust to the South’s model of highly competitive capitalism has even driven at least some into dreaming of returning to North Korea.

Little opposition

After the announcement of Pyeongchang as the host city for this year’s Winter Olympics, some local residents and environmental groups expressed opposition to the overdevelopment and environmental destruction that comes with the Games.

Many construction workers have been injured as a result of the rush to meet the Games deadline. Workers have also frequently not been paid on time.

However, with the exception of protests by the construction workers' union, South Korea’s trade unions have hardly been involved in any protests. In the context of the prevailing nationalist atmosphere, marginalised reformist parties have joined in welcoming the Olympics.

In this rather complicated and chaotic atmosphere, the South Korean government has tried to maximise the impact of the global sporting festival, with the support of the national and international commercial media. In the absence of any fundamental critiques of mass global sporting spectacles, 2925 athletes from 19 countries will compete under the auspices of global capital and the international sports mafia.

But as Brazil’s 2016 summer Olympics showed, it will be their festival, not ours.

[Youngsu Won is a coordinator of the International Forum in South Korea. This article first appeared at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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