South Koreans chafe against North-South unified Olympics team

An agreement to have North Korea and South Korea march under one flag and field a joint hockey team in the Winter Olympics has triggered a backlash in South Korea from young and old alike who feel the move is nothing more than political propaganda.

Kim Hong-ji/Reuters
A unification flag tied to a military fence near the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea. The note on the flag reads: 'I want to walk freely beyond this military fence.' Many South Koreans criticized the agreement to march with the North under the unity flag at the Olympics in Febrary.

An agreement between South and North Korea to march under a unity flag and field a joint ice hockey team at next month's Olympics was met sharp criticism by many in the South on Thursday, highlighting changing attitudes toward the country's northern neighbor.

The controversy reveals a South Korean public far less wedded to the idea of inter-Korean unity than previous generations, analysts say, a changing dynamic that may shape South Korean President Moon Jae-in's efforts at reconciliation with the isolated North.

North Korea's participation in the Olympics has been seen as a win for Mr. Moon, who hopes to use the event to make a diplomatic breakthrough in the standoff over North Korea's nuclear and missile program. It also eases public concerns the North might upstage the Games with yet another weapons test.

But Moon's specific moves to integrate the two Koreas at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have sparked a sharp backlash that goes beyond his traditional conservative detractors to include his main support base of younger South Koreans upset that an unchastened North Korea is stealing the spotlight.

"North Korea was all about firing missiles last year, but suddenly they want to come to the South for the Olympics? Who gets to decide that?" Kim Joo-hee, a translator, told Reuters during a coffee break on a chilly Seoul afternoon. "Does North Korea have so much privilege to do whatever they want?"

Moon's office declined to comment beyond saying the two countries would be coordinating logistics for the Olympics, which begin on Feb. 9.

Opinion polls released since the plans became public have shown limited support for some of Seoul's proposals.

Only 4 out of 10 respondents said they favor the plan to march together under a flag symbolizing a unified Korea, according to a survey released on Thursday by the South Korean pollster Realmeter.

Tens of thousands of people took to social media to vent their disgust after plans for the joint activities were announced on Wednesday, with one commenter saying the Korean peninsula flag is "not my [expletive] flag."

Others complained that "the Pyeongchang Olympics have already become the Pyongyang Olympics."

Two different countries

The South Korean women's ice hockey team is the only team ear-marked for integration with the North Koreans, a move that drew criticism from the coach and team members worried their performance would be disrupted by accommodating less accomplished North Korean players at short notice.

In a visit with the team on Wednesday, Moon tried to smooth things over by telling the players that showing unity and hope may be more important than winning, and that integrating with North Koreans will bring attention to "a less-preferred sport."

Nam Sung-wook, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University, said the president may have come across as being unfair to the South Korean athletes forced to change their plans.

"Those who voted for Moon Jae-in last year yearned for a different world where fairness and hard work are valued and rewarded," he said. "But this time the Moon administration failed to grasp the situation and disappointed many people, including its supporters."

Younger South Koreans who did not experience the 1950-1953 Korean War or its cold war aftermath may also have fewer cross-border ties and less desire to reunite the peninsula than earlier generations.

"Undoubtedly we are two different and separate countries," said Lee Seung-kun, who works in business development. "No one questions that, so competing at the Olympics as 'one country' does logically not make any sense."

Andray Abrahamian, a research fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS, said it was significant that plans for joint Olympic activities have upset younger South Koreans, not only older anti-North Korea nationalists.

"I think that reflects a growing South Korean nationalism and identity, rather than a more simple anti-communism in the older generation," Mr. Abrahamian said. "Young people are not anti-communist so much as communism is just sort of irrelevant to them."

'Political show'

The political situation has also changed since jubilant crowds greeted a joint Korean team at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, when many in South Korea and beyond sensed there might be a real breakthrough on the horizon.

"Marching under the one peninsula flag does not bring peace to the Korean peninsula," said one South Korean Twitter user. "We did that 18 years ago at the Sydney Summer Olympics, but North Korea has fired missiles, conducted nuclear tests, and killed our own citizens. It is just another political show."

While some in the Moon administration may feel "romantic" about reconciliation with North Korea, many in South Korea now see this as a "delusion," said author Michael Breen, who has studied South Korea for decades.

"South Koreans feel sorry for the athletes who have trained so hard for the Olympics and are now being kicked out of the team to make way for North Koreans," he said.

"They think there must be a better way, especially as a few months from now we all know we will be back to where we were with North Korea."

This story was reported by Reuters.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to South Koreans chafe against North-South unified Olympics team
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today