PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — On the one hand: The world gathers for a scripted, globalized spectacle of competition and unity. North Korean athletes and performers stream into the rival South for a display of cooperation that just maybe, could ease anxiety about possible nuclear war. The North’s head of state announces plans to visit the South for the first time. The U.S. vice president is stopping by, too.
On the other: Angry South Koreans bump up against riot police to protest the arrivals. The North’s government immediately calls the demonstration a “spasm of psychopaths.” The president of the United States insists that America must become “great again” – and goads the North Korean leader on Twitter.
That the world is a contradictory and quarrelsome place is hardly breaking news. But on the week that the 2018 Winter Olympics begin, tucked away in chilly mountains that loom over one of the planet’s most contentious patches of earth, it somehow seems more so at this moment.
When the torch is lit during the opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang’s Olympic stadium on Friday night, it will become one of many flames being fanned around the world. Few others are anywhere near as uplifting.
“It’s hard to talk about these Olympics without bearing in mind that for all the wonderful ideals that are brought to mind by the Olympic Games, and rightfully so, right now the Korean Peninsula is the most dangerous place on Earth,” says Mark Hertsgaard, author of The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World.
As its organizers often say, an Olympics are an opportunity to sublimate politics into healthy competition and show that the world can come together for a noble purpose: an excellence of body and mind produced by hard work and sheer determination.
And yes, that’s happening in Pyeongchang even before the Games begin, most dramatically with the joint Korean women’s hockey team, which will feature players from the long-divided North and South skating and competing together on the same ice.
It will be interesting to watch the opening ceremony, typically a moment for a country to showcase vivid imagery about its own history. What space, if any, will that performance give to North Korea and the conflict that divided the peninsula seven decades ago?
On the ground in Pyeongchang, optimism presents itself in remarks like this one a few days ago, from athletes’ village volunteer Go Do Hyoung, a South Korean faced with the possibility of meeting people from the North:
“I just want to say to them, ‘How are you? Nice to meet you. Welcome to South Korea.’ And just take one picture, something like that. We South Korean people don’t have much chance to talk with North Korean(s). So I just want to know who they are and what they want to know about. Just know them in person.”