How the Olympics can reshape the Koreas

Young South Koreans, in protesting the forced kinship on a joint hockey team, display a civic identity above ethnic nationalism. Perhaps that is a path toward peace on the peninsula.

AP Photo
Inter-Korea's players walk into the ice during the women's hockey friendly game between Koreas' combined team and Sweden, at Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon, South Korea, Feb. 4.

When South Korea was chosen in 2011 to host this year’s Winter Olympics, one big hope was that North Koreans would participate with their fellow Koreans in the sporting events. The two peoples, after all, share an ethnic bond and an ancient culture despite decades of separation and conflict. Achieving peace on the divided peninsula might be made easier.

That assumption, however, has been openly challenged in recent weeks as North Koreans have indeed joined the Olympics. The best evidence is the widespread resentment and protests after players on South Korea’s women’s ice hockey team – who practiced hard for the Olympics – had to give up 12 places for North Korean athletes just for the political purpose of showing kinship and to promote a temporary peace.

The forced unity was seen as unfair and violating the norms of decency in South Korea. The popularity of South Korean President Moon Jae-in fell. The move was even more unpopular after it became clear that the two sets of players differ in their use of the Korean language. To communicate, they often have to use English.

Young South Koreans are moving past the idea that ethnic nationalism and a belief in common bloodlines could someday drive the two Koreas to unite. After three decades of democracy and an embrace of a globalized world, they display a civic nationalism built on universal values. Nearly three-quarters of South Koreans in their 20s, for example, now oppose reunification with the North. In contrast, for those over 60, about half say reunification is necessary because North Koreans “belong to the same nation.”

Young South Koreans also display a cultural affinity with many other nations, such as China, Japan, and the United States. And their own cultural exports, such as K-pop and soap operas, have helped shape a broader identity.

South Korea really began to lose interest in reunification after it saw the high cost to West Germany of absorbing East Germany in the 1990s. The much-poorer North would take years to achieve South Korea’s economic standards. In addition, the two drifted further apart after violent attacks by the North on South Korean civilians and service members in recent years.

Over time, the people of North Korea might begin to appreciate this shift in identity among their southern cousins. The regime of dictator Kim Jong-un has tried to build a North Korean identity based on the notion that only it can reunite the peninsula, relying on atomic weapons and authoritarian rule by one family – and all for the purpose of “Korean purity.”

This Olympics has served as a window on what really might bring peace to the two Koreas. It lies in honoring the norms of fairness and rules demanded by young people in South Korea’s democracy. Bloodlines are not thicker than that larger and universal identity.

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