SEOUL, July 13 (Yonhap) -- It has only been a week since PyeongChang won the right to host South Korea's first Winter Olympics in 2018, yet political matters are threatening to sidetrack celebration of the successful bid.
PyeongChang, about 180 kilometers east of Seoul in Gangwon Province, beat out Munich of Germany and Annecy of France in an International Olympic Committee (IOC) vote in Durban, South Africa, last Wednesday. The South Korean alpine town was successful in its third straight bid, after losing to Vancouver for 2010 and to Sochi for the 2014 Olympics.
Delegations from South and North Korea during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (Yonhap file photo)
But the debate over potentially co-hosting the games with North Korea has divided camps while serving as a solemn reminder of the volatility on the separated peninsula.
Earlier Wednesday, Jang Ung, an IOC member from North Korea, said he hopes to see the two Koreas co-host the 2018 Winter Olympics. Though Chang altered his remarks later in the day, his comment added fuel to the fire that started on Monday when Rep. Sohn Hak-kyu, leader of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP), said he would explore ways for the two countries to host the games together.
But government and sports officials say it is unlikely for the two Koreas to co-host the Olympics for a number of reasons, not the least of which is PyeongChang's commitment to the IOC.
Sohn met some opposition from his own party. Choi Moon-soon, governor of Gangwon and a member of the DP, said he appreciated Sohn's stance but the matter needed "careful deliberation."
"There are many technical issues, such as our deal with the IOC, constructing new facilities in North Korea and inter-Korean relations," Choi had said at a press conference on Monday.
If PyeongChang were to co-host the event with the North, it would only result in the very thing that the city had to eschew to win the bid: a politically driven Olympic plan.
In two failed bids in 2003 and in 2007, PyengChang argued that an Olympics in Gangwon Province, bordering North Korea, would help bring peace to the peninsula. With more liberal presidents in office in Seoul, the two Koreas held their first summit in 2000 and a second in 2007. PyeongChang floated around the idea of co-hosting in its first bid.
But critics said the bid was too politically charged and that pushing the peace storyline for two straight bids bred indifference among IOC members. This time, PyeongChang's winning bid relied largely on a compact venue plan, with all facilities reachable within 30 minutes of each other. It focused more on promoting and developing winter sports across Asia, and less so on fostering peace on the divided peninsula.
The tighter plan was an improvement over the previous bid for the 2014 Games. PyeongChang had then planned to build some venues in Wonju and Hoengseong, satellite towns about an hour away from PyeongChang. And the possibility of putting some events north of the border, officials say, would only negate PyeongChang's strength.
The host would also have to alter its plan and submit it to the IOC for approval, which may draw opposition from Munich and Annecy.
The IOC has only allowed splitting events across two cities in special cases. At both the 1956 Melbourne Games and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, equestrian events were held in different locations -- Stockholm and Hong Kong, respectively -- for quarantine reasons.
Safety is also an issue. The inter-Korean border is one of the world's most heavily fortified, and the guarantee of safety of all travelers, not just South Koreans, would have to precede any joint Korean event north of the border. The Koreas also remain technically at war with each other since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
In July 2008, a South Korean female tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in a military zone near the Mount Kumgang resort. Tour programs to the scenic area, which started out to boost reconciliation, have remained suspended since, and talks to resume tourism have gone for naught. South Korea has demanded a formal apology and guarantees of safety for future visitors, while North Korea has countered that it has done everything it can.
In other instances, North Korea had stranded South Korean workers at a joint industrial complex by shutting the border in protest to Seoul's tough policy against the communist regime.
The Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs in Seoul, said Wednesday the government wasn't considering co-hosting the Olympics with North Korea.
"From the government's perspective, the most important issue at this point is the complete and systematic guarantees of safety of all individuals visiting North Korea," said Lee Jong-joo, a spokeswoman for the ministry, at a press briefing.
North Korea, an impoverished state said to be suffering a severe food shortage, would be hard pressed to construct Winter Olympics venues and to improve other infrastructure, officials say. Park Yong-sung, president of the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC), shot down the possibility of joint hosting, saying, "Whoever talks about co-hosting with North Korea doesn't grasp the current situation (in the North)."
Officials say there could be some opening for a unified Korean delegation in seven years' time. Though inter-Korean relations have mostly been frigid under conservative South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who took office in 2008, the two Koreas had had relatively more peaceful years under different leadership.
The Koreans have sent a unified team in football and in table tennis, both in 1991. They have marched together in Olympics and Asian Games, but have never competed as the same team in those quadrennial competitions.
Even in that scenario, North Korea would have to make concessions. Before the 2002 Asian Games in South Korea's Busan, the North asked that the two Koreas each field the exact same number of athletes in the same number of sports, despite clear discrepancies in athletic prowess between them.
South Korea is a consistent top-10 medal winner in both the Summer and Winter Games, while North Korea has struggled to put athletes on podiums.