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(Yonhap Feature) S. Koreans view N.K. participation in Olympics with mixed feelings

2018/01/24 15:12

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SEOUL, Jan. 24 (Yonhap) -- Peace Olympics or Pyongyang Olympics? The different nicknames South Koreans are using for next month's PyeongChang Winter Olympics reflect their mixed feelings over North Korea's participation in the games, which has both raised hope of reconciliation on the divided peninsula and sparked outrage over what is seen as a disguised charm offensive meant to weaken the brunt of international sanctions.

During their recent rounds of talks, the two Koreas agreed to field a joint women's ice hockey team for the Olympics and march together under a "unified Korea" flag during the opening ceremony.

The North is set to send a 46-member sports delegation, including 22 athletes, to the games. In addition, it has offered to send a 230-member cheering team, a taekwondo demonstration team and an art troupe.

The rare breakthrough in sports diplomacy has raised hopes for a thaw in cross-border ties, which have been strained by Pyongyang's continued provocations, and for the resumption of long-stalled talks on its denuclearization.

But the North's participation has prompted protests largely from conservatives here, who argue it will exploit the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games by serving as communist propaganda, weaken global sanctions and overshadow South Korean efforts to prepare for the Olympics.

This photo, taken by the Joint Press Corps on Jan. 9, 2018, shows South Korea's chief delegate Cho Myoung-gyon (R) shaking hands with his North Korean counterpart Ri Son-gwon before high-level talks between the South and the North. (Yonhap) This photo, taken by the Joint Press Corps on Jan. 9, 2018, shows South Korea's chief delegate Cho Myoung-gyon (R) shaking hands with his North Korean counterpart Ri Son-gwon before high-level talks between the South and the North. (Yonhap)

"Well, I think the North's participation does more good than harm given that it will help reduce military tensions and leaven what could otherwise be an unappealing sporting event with the team's rare presence," Kim Jang-won, a 37-year-old office worker in Seoul, told Yonhap News Agency.

"Moreover, I believe the Seoul government's efforts for cross-border dialogue and rapprochement befits the purpose of the Olympics -- promoting peace around the world by binding people together through sports," he added.

Before the announcement on the North's participation, concerns persisted that the South's preparations for the Olympics would be hamstrung by the North's escalating nuclear threats, its bellicose rhetoric and frosty inter-Korean ties. Some countries even dithered on whether to send their delegations to PyeongChang due to security concerns.

But Pyongyang's surprise offer to join the quadrennial event has helped reduce cross-border tensions, at least for the time being, galvanized international attention to the games and raised the prospect of reconciliation between the two Koreas.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un signaled his wish to send his country's delegation to the Olympics during his New Year's Day speech, an unexpected olive branch hardly imaginable during the past two conservative administrations in Seoul.

This image provided by Yonhap News TV shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Yonhap) This image provided by Yonhap News TV shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. (Yonhap)

"Think about the strident talk of possible war, pre-emptive strikes and nuclear exchanges that we had before the North's announcement on its Olympic participation," Kim Jung-jae, a 36-year-old educator in Seoul, said.

"The formation of a joint women's hockey team and the use of a unified Korea flag ... all of this will combine to dilute South Korea's image associated with border tensions and animosities and promote peace here, hopefully a lasting one," he added.

However, opponents of the North's participation in the Olympics have warned of the country's "deceitful charm offensive" aimed at sprucing up its image and eroding international solidarity against its quickly advancing nuclear program.

They have rejected any suggestion that the North might seek a course correction in favor of openness and denuclearization because of the Olympics, stressing that Seoul should remain cautious not to be "played" by Pyongyang.

They also said that the North's regime might have felt compelled to join the Olympics to hinder the momentum of international sanctions that have exacerbated its people's economic travails in a way that could endanger its government's legitimacy.

"We, South Koreans, have so laboriously prepared for the Olympics to make it a global festival for peace. I am a little agitated that much of the international attention is being drawn to the North's participation," Lee Jung-hyun, a 42-year-old citizen in Seoul, said.

"It is likely that the North may take advantage of the event to weaken the international community's tough stance on its nuclear program, which I fear could undercut the credibility of South Korea's denuclearization efforts," he added.

Park Min-soo, a 36-year-old office worker in Incheon, west of Seoul, said it is a "pipe dream" to believe that the North's participation will lead to any breakthrough in hitherto fruitless denuclearization efforts.

"We should not loosen our military readiness even a bit, even if the North makes any conciliatory gestures towards us," he said. "It is a tack it has taken in the past. They engage in dialogue, set the mood for peace and then revert to provocative acts out of the blue."

   Public division over the North's participation in the Olympics has been a source of concern for the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae. It has repeatedly issued public statements calling for national unity and bipartisan support for the successful hosting of the event.

"The Moon Jae-in government's efforts to overcome the crisis on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue led to North Korea's participation in the Olympics," Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Park Soo-hyun told a press conference.

"We are confident the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games will go beyond establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula to become a primer for global peace," he added.

This photo taken Jan. 23, 2018, shows Park Soo-hyun, the presidential spokesman, speaking during a press conference at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo taken Jan. 23, 2018, shows Park Soo-hyun, the presidential spokesman, speaking during a press conference at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul. (Yonhap)

sshluck@yna.co.kr

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