Promise of unified Koreas at Olympics leads to anger in South Korea and concern internationally

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 January, 2018, 6:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 January, 2018, 7:23pm

The proposal for South Korea and North Korea to present a unified front at the Winter Olympics has excited many – and angered many more. Meanwhile, the international community has raise an eyebrow at Kim Jong-un’s apparent peace offering.

Seoul announced the plan to march together under a pro-unification flag on Wednesday, as well as the proposal of a unified women’s ice hockey team.

That has resulted in a sharp uptick in petitions against the unified team on the website of Seoul’s presidential Blue House. The number of petitions shot up to more than 100 this week, with the most popular one garnering more than 17,000 votes.

“This isn’t the same as glueing a broken plate together,” said one of the signers.

The prospect of a combined team had long been unsettling for the South Korean players. As in most other winter sports, the South is much stronger than the North.

[The players] thought these North Koreans are going to come in and take our spots
Sarah Murray, South Korean women’s hockey head coach

“Our players were really nervous,” Sarah Murray, South Korean women’s hockey head coach, told Reuters last month during the team’s training swing through the United States.

“We can only take 23 players to the Olympics, and they thought these North Koreans are going to come in and take our spots,” Murray said.

The decision on a united ice hockey team is not yet finalised, as it requires the consent of the IOC and related international bodies.

“We’re well aware of the people’s concerns and interests about this,” Chun Hae-sung, the South’s chief negotiator and vice unification minister, told a news conference.

“But I would like you to see the other side that it could make a positive contribution to peace of the Korean Peninsula and improving inter-Korean relations.”

On Tuesday, the North said a 140-person orchestra would perform in South Korea during the Games. Pyongyang is also planning to send a large delegation in addition to the athletes and orchestra.

North Korea will send a delegation of more than 400, including 230 cheerleaders, 140 artists and 30 taekwondo players for a demonstration, a joint press statement released by Seoul’s Unification Ministry said, adding that the precise number of athletes will be hammered out after discussions with the IOC scheduled for later this week.

Paik Hak-soon, the director of the Centre for North Korean studies at Sejong Institute in South Korea, said North Korea was using the cheering squad to draw attention to its apparent cooperative spirit.

Koreas agree to form joint ice hockey team and march together in Winter Olympics

“Seeing good results in competitions thanks to the cheering squad would enable the North Koreans to say they contributed to a successful Olympics and the South Korean government would likely agree,” said Paik. “In the end, they are using this old tactic to get to Washington through Seoul.”

But the response from the international community was more muted.

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said the world should not be naive about North Korea’s “charm offensive” over the Olympics.

It is not the time to ease pressure, or to reward North Korea
Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono

“It is not the time to ease pressure, or to reward North Korea,” Kono said. “The fact that North Korea is engaging in dialogue could be interpreted as proof that the sanctions are working.”

Twenty nations meeting in the Canadian city of Vancouver agreed on Tuesday to consider tougher sanctions to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned the North it could trigger a military response if it did not choose dialogue.

“Under the circumstances where inter-Korean (relations) are extremely strained, in fact just some 20 days ago we weren’t expecting North Korea would participate in the Olympics”, said Chun, the South’s chief negotiator and vice unification minister.

“It would have a significant meaning if the South and North show reconciliation and unity, for example through a joint march”.

The North Korean delegation will begin arriving in South Korea on January 25, according to the joint statement. The North will separately send a 150-strong delegation to the Paralympics, Chun said.

Reclusive North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty. The North regularly threatens to destroy the South, Japan and their major ally, the United States.

North Korea to send orchestra to Winter Olympics

But North and South Korea have been talking since last week – for the first time in more than two years – about the Olympics, offering a respite from a months-long stand-off over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programmes.

The two Koreas have joined forces at other international sports events before.

Before the Games, the sides will carry out joint training for skiers at the North’s Masik Pass resort and a cultural event at the Mount Kumgang resort, for which Seoul officials plan to visit the sites next week.