The big day is finally here. On February 9 the PyeongChang Winter Olympics kick off with an opening parade. North and South Korean teams will march together, behind a unity flag.
The official program for PyeongChang 2018 lists 15 separate events: far fewer than in a summer Olympics. (Face it, there’s only so much you can do in the snow.)
Off-piste is another story. All manner of covert games are playing out behind the scenes. Some are fairly obvious, others less so. As always, NK News brings you the lowdown.
Here then are some of the key ongoing offstage events and trends to watch out for:
STEALING THE SHOW
South Korea has sweated for nearly seven years preparing to host the Winter Olympics. All that time North Korea showed zero interest – until Kim Jong Un’s New Year address, less than six weeks ago.
Kim could have rained on Seoul’s parade by continuing nuclear and missile tests. Cunningly, he chose to steal the show instead by self-inviting the North to Pyeongchang.
So the Olympics are in South Korea, yet the media story is all North Korea. The conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP)’s sarcastic jibe that this has become the “Pyongyang Olympics” has a point, whatever side you’re on politically. That is galling to many in Seoul.
North Korea is a long-time global champion here. For decades Pyongyang has taken other people’s money – Moscow, Beijing, Seoul – but always gone its own sweet way. Or not so sweet, often. In a classic feint, they have the gall to call this self-reliance.
Show-stealing is a form of free-riding. More literally: is the North paying its way in any of this? They always expect Seoul to foot the bill, and it almost always does. That’s unsporting and unhealthy.
A rare exception was the Incheon Asiad in 2014. Park Geun-hye’s government at first tried to treat North Korea like any other nation attending, but eventually paid 70% of their costs. It drew the line at cheerleaders, so an angry Pyongyang didn’t send them.
South Korea is welcoming many distinguished guests. Formally, they all wish their host well. But some come with other agendas. They even admit as such.
The Olympics are in South Korea, yet the media story is all North Korea
Mike Pence wins gold for the least subtle sparring. Bringing Otto Warmbier’s father already made quite a point, but just to be clear an aide spelled it out. The Vice President’s avowed aim at PyeongChang is to expose North Korea’s “charade” and stop it “hijacking” the Games.
That’s a tall order, given how image-driven many media are. Brutally, it’s cheerleaders versus tragic dad. You tell me whose pictures will fill the papers. It’s already happening.
That’s the tricky task confronting South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. You could say he’s skating on thin ice, but that misses the delicate balancing act involved.
Lean too far to embrace the North, and the U.S. (and Japan: Abe is coming too) will howl. But if Moon lines up too tightly with those allies, Pyongyang may take its bat home. DPRK media already accused him of “brownnosing” for giving Trump credit for the new peace process.
So many pitfalls. (The VIP seating plan at the opening ceremony, for starters. Mr. Pence, have you met Ms. Kim?) It’ll be a miracle if Moon manages to wobble his way across unscathed.
Give it up for Sarah Murray, Canadian coach of the South Korean (and now the Korean) women’s ice hockey team. When the plan for a united squad was first announced, she said frankly how hard and unfair this was for her girls. Years of training, then suddenly total strangers get foisted on you with almost no time to train together and bond as a team.
That was then. Ms. Murray now sounds far more upbeat. She deserves a medal too for a (how to put it?) linguistic initiative. To aid communication they’ve compiled a three-page three-way hockey dictionary: English, RO Korean and DPR Korean. South Korea uses English terms like wing, pass, and block shot. North Korea, which has systematically purged – or never adopted – foreign words, has coined its own terms for these and more.
Show-stealing is a form of free-riding… is the North paying its way in any of this?
LONGEST DISTANCE BETWEEN TWO POINTS
The route from Pyongyang to Seoul, let alone to Pyeongchang, is often circuitous. In theory, one could travel directly by road, and indeed rail, between the two Korean capitals.
But hardly anyone gets to do that. Despite making the odd rare exception, like for some bikers a few years ago, during the Sunshine era (1998-2007) the North forced nearly all the then quite many Southern visitors to go the long way round, flying via Beijing.
This time, most of the Northern delegations came directly across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). But not the 140-strong Samjiyon Orchestra, who took the scenic route: train to Wonsan, then boat (the inevitable Manggyongbong) to Gangneung.
And that’s just for starters. As consultant Michael Spavor put it when tweeting the map: “Looks like it will be train, ship, bus, performance, bus, performance, bus, train, bus, and then back home.”
How to rank these un-Olympic contests? The big questions are two, and they’re connected. Will come-lately North Korea steal the South’s show, or can VP Pence execute a successful block shot? And will Moon fall off his tightrope? The world is watching. Go Korea!
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Korean Culture and Information Service
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