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Some South Koreans conflicted about country's decision to share Olympic spotlight

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — It starts with a smile or a grimace and is almost always followed by a shrug.

Whether or not ordinary South Koreans support their government’s gesture of goodwill toward North Korea in marching together under a special flag symbolizing unity, they make it clear that it is something that elicits complicated feelings.

In fact, some people just decline to discuss the topic with foreign journalists because, well, they really want the focus to be on their country and the Olympic Games and not the complicated, volatile relationship South Korea has with unpredictable North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“I’m so glad North Korea is coming to our country and enjoying these Olympics with our team,” said 18-year-old Hwang Yun Jung, who helps her mother run their coffee shop in Gangneung, the city that hosts figure and speed skating events. “I think it will make a little bit of difference.”

She shrugs and then adds, “I think a lot of persons are enjoying our country. I want a lot of people to see it.”

That sense of South Korean pride makes the decision of South Korea President Moon Jae-in and Pyeongchang Olympic organizers to extend an invitation to North Korea’s combative and sometimes immature Kim Jong-un to participate as unified countries in the opening ceremonies, as well as creating a combined women’s hockey team, a particularly powerful choice.

Mary Kim, 42, shopping near the Main Press Center, said the country is split based on their experiences. Older people, she said, tend to favor the unification efforts, even those they view as simply symbolic, while younger people tend to see it as a generosity North Korean leaders do not deserve.

That perspective is confirmed by people hurrying to and from events or shopping for Olympic souvenirs, even as most of them are reluctant to give their names to foreign journalists.

A businessman in Gangneung said he doesn’t understand why his government would make an issue of peace and reunification with North Korea during the Olympic Games.

“The Olympics is our festival,” he said, later asking the Deseret News not to use his name because he worries about ramifications for his company. “This is our country doing a festival. Why is North Korea an issue? We don’t want this issue. We just want to show South Korea, our beautiful cities, and North Korea is always creating this terrible situation.”

The issue, he said, is one of trust.

South Koreans do not trust Kim Jong-un and his communist government because they say they want peace but their actions suggest otherwise. He points to the military parade North Korea had the day before Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, became the first member of the royal family to visit South Korea. She sat behind other dignitaries, including South Korea’s president, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, as well as IOC President Thomas Bach during Friday night’s opening ceremonies.

While Olympic officials and the media memorialized the historic handshakes between the dignitaries, regular people said they aren’t sure if it means anything at all.

“North Korea always does this,” the businessman said. “They say they look for peace, but then on the backside, they’re different. They always break their word to South Korea and the Americans. This is no different.”

Still, he admits that the gesture of goodwill keeps alive a hope that someday the two countries, which were separated by the United States, Great Britain and Russia after WWII, could someday reunite as one Korea.

“We want to be one country,” he said. “But how to say, it’s impossible when we think about North Korea. They say, they look like they want peace, but then they make a nuclear missile.”

In fact, he and several others said that as long as Kim Jong-un remains the leader of North Korea, peace will be difficult and reunification a fantasy. Several older people simply point to the Korean War, a conflict that began just five years after WWII ended when North Korea invaded South Korea.

The complicated political history is one of the reasons people give for shrugging off questions about whether or not the 2018 efforts to offer a united Korea, even if it’s just in sports, is a good idea. They’re immensely proud of their country, and they’re thrilled with the reaction the world has had so far to their efforts at hosting the Games.

"We're so proud to have Olympic Games," Kim said smiling. "Maybe it change nothing, but it is still nice to make a strong statement for peace."

Even those who don’t have tickets to any events say they’re enjoying the visitors from around the world.

“I’m really glad it’s the Olympics in here because it’s a lot of building, and lots of people are coming as tourists to our country,” Hwang said, as her mother prepared sweet potato coffee for visitors. “It’s so interesting in my life.”


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