In a tiny town set in a bowl of mountains, the 2018 Winter Olympiad formally kicks off today with an opening ceremony that will be attended by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, US Vice President Mike Pence and – most notably of all, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Kim is joining the North’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam in South Korea; together they form the highest-level delegation from Pyongyang ever to visit the South. The eyes of many spectators in the 20,000-seat stadium will be focused not on the action on the ice, but on the VIP area, scanning the chemistry between the various dignitaries.
Kim Yo-jong is scheduled for a summit and lunch with Moon in Seoul on Saturday. Moon has already met with Pence, with the two reiterating their commitment to the bilateral security alliance, although there is significant space between the liberal-leaning Moon and the hardline Pence in terms of their attitudes toward North Korea.
With allied spring military exercises set to take place in the South immediately after the Paralympics end on March 18, there are high hopes that tensions can be defused before then.
Both sport and inter-Korean tensions were on the minds of the many visitors starting to flood into the tiny village of Daegwallyeong this morning (Friday). Daegwallyeong, in the center of Pyeongchang County – after which this Olympiad is named – has a population of just over 6,000 people.
Today, some 20,000 spectators, the delegations of the many VIPs, and a massive security presence will swamp the streets, which offer but handful of coffee shops, bars and restaurants selling such delicacies as grilled pork belly and dried rays, and a single gift shop selling Olympic mascots.
For Angel Mancari, bedecked in US-branded cold-weather gear, the weather in what is reported to be the coldest town in Korea was mild. “This is not cold!” she said. “We are from Alaska!”
Another visitor was having the opposite experience. “We are so excited, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!” said a warmly-wrapped Glessi Basa from the Philippines. “We come from a country with just one ice rink – in a shopping mall – and we have no winter, no ice, no snow!”
Mancari, in Korea to support her daughter, a snowboarder, was upbeat about the organization. “Everything is wonderful apart from the taxis!” she exclaimed. “They need more taxis – we can’t get a taxi to save our lives!”
The town center has restricted access today. Vehicles were being parked in a specially-constructed parking lot on the edge of town; buses shuttled people in. Mid-morning, roads leading into the town were being blocked by a hefty police presence, while barriers and tire-shredding spike-strips were being laid on roads inside it.
The politics behind the sport
Visitors were well aware of the North Korean presence at the Games.
“We have peace of mind, we feel safe because the two countries are together,” said Zumi Miranda, Blessi’s companion from the Philippines. “I was concerned that it would not be safe [when I bought tickets last year] – but now I have peace of mind.”
Still, not all were happy about it. There is a division underway in South Korean society, with many angry at how generously the North Korean delegation has been accommodated.
Younger people in Daegwallyeong are cheerfully brandishing the inter-Korean flag – depicting a sky-blue outline of the Korean peninsula – that will fly for the joint, inter-Korean team.
That flag has already sparked a diplomatic row with Japan, however, as it includes a disputed, South Korean-occupied pair of islets (known as Dokdo to Koreans and Takeshima to Japanese) in the sea between the two countries. While the official flag flown at venues will reportedly not include the islets, the flags, and identical badges, being hefted in Daegwallyeong this morning certainly did.
The inter-Korean flag has also irked another group for a different reason: predominantly elderly, patriotic South Korean anti-communists hate the symbol. A small group of elderly people in the center of Daegwallyeong were draped in the iconic yin-and-yang branded Taekgukki – the South Korean flag.
“We are flying the flag – this is the Taegukki Olympics!” said Son Ok-sun, a 60-something woman wearing a cloak made of the flag. “Today, South Korea is in real pain.”
Son represents the conservatives who support impeached and imprisoned ex-South President Park Geun-hye, oppose liberal President Moon Jae-in, and prioritize the Korea-US alliance – many carry US flags alongside the Taekgukki. They have been protesting in Seoul since Park’s ouster last year, and are now protesting the North Korean presence at the Olympiad.
On Thursday night, in the coastal town of Gangneung, where a North Korean orchestra played as part of goodwill events that are taking place around these Games, a small force of perhaps 200 “Taegukki protesters” demonstrated outside the venue – surrounded by a much larger force of police.
Security around the visiting North Koreans has been ultra-tight, with the South Korean government clearly unwilling to allow anything to spoil the ambience.
Some of Son’s colleagues were preparing to demonstrate outside the town. Son herself was clear on where her loyalties lay. “We love South Korea!” she said. “We love Trump!”
Others, however, were more nuanced in their judgments – and brimming with Olympic spirit.
“I feel sorry for the North Korea people, under their government, but do I want them bombed? No!” said Mancari from Alaska. “We want everyone to live in peace, we are all part of the human race, I feel like we are all brothers and sisters.”