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North Korea's Olympic Delegation to South Korea is a Huge Deal

Last time South Korea hosted an Olympics in 1988, North Korea told its citizens that the games were held in Tokyo. This time, North Korea is sending a delegation.

Eric Stinton

Wikimedia Commons

In his New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had a mixed bag of messages, for the North Korean people and the world. The speech, translated into English, ran more than 5000 words. The first three quarters of the speech were standard stuff: we have nukes, get over it and let’s continue to develop our economy. Then the tone shifted.

“This year is significant both for the North and the South, as in the North the people will greet the 70th founding anniversary of their Republic as a great, auspicious event, and in the South the Winter Olympic Games will take place,” Kim Jong-un said.

He went on to refer to both Koreas as “the nation,” singular, and “earnestly wish the Olympic Games [to be] a success.”

This is notable, not just in the context of the rest of the speech or the recent tensions on the Korean peninsula, but because this is a tremendous departure from how North Korea responded the last time South Korea hosted the Olympics 30 years ago.

The summer Olympics came to Seoul in 1988. This was a momentous occasion for the country, politically and psychologically. South Korea had just held its first democratic election in 1987, and the Olympics were a way to demonstrate to the international community its newfound identity as a modern economy and emerging global power. Then and now, the Olympics elicit a wellspring of pride within the average citizen in South Korea. Just two years ago, the South Korean TV show Reply 1988, a drama set in the context of the Seoul Games, smashed the record for the highest-rated drama in Korean television history, and continues to hold the record today.

There were significant political breakthroughs for the 1988 Olympics, too. The previous two summer Olympics, held in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984, were essentially Cold War battlegrounds: America led a 66-country boycott of the Moscow Games, which was reciprocated with a USSR-led Eastern Bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Games. In Seoul, however, nearly all parties showed up for the first time in over a decade. The success of the Olympics paved the way for South Korea to normalize relations with both China and the Soviets, which up until then were regional and ideological enemies. Only North Korea and Cuba ended up boycotting the Seoul Games.

Seoul Olympic poster via creative commons/Flickr user Ben Southerland

At first, North Korea wanted to “co-host” the Seoul Games, though the notion seemed to mean something different to them than the rest of the world. They demanded that Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, split the events 50-50 with South Korea, as well as host both the opening and closing ceremonies. When this idea was rejected, North Korea retaliated by blowing up a commercial airliner that killed 115 South Korean citizens in 1987—explicitly to disrupt the Olympics.

Of course, Kim Jong-un himself doesn’t remember any of this: he was only four years old during the 1988 Seoul Games. Park Ui-sung, a 29 year-old North Korean escapee who now lives in Seoul, doesn’t remember any of this either, but not just because of his age. He was told the 1988 Olympics took place in Tokyo.

“The government told us South Korea is very poor,” Park, who is now a regular contributor to the “Ask a North Korean” column on Nknews.org, explained. “A poor country couldn’t host an event like the Olympics. Even if people heard about it, they couldn’t believe it.”

The insidious part of this line of propaganda is that it’s easy to believe, in part because it was true for so long. After the Korean War “ended” in 1953—no peace treaty was signed, so technically the two nations are still at war—the theater of battle shifted to a contest of development. For 20 years, the North was handily winning that battle. It had a stronger economy and military, and the government provided food, housing and clothes for everyone in the country. In a twist of historical irony, Chinese citizens used to flee their country to live in the vastly more comfortable North Korea.

By the time the 1980’s rolled around, however, that dynamic had changed. South Korea rapidly industrialized and started to receive significant foreign investment. It didn’t just catch up to North Korea—it left them in the dust. The average North Korean citizen, however, had no way of knowing this.

With no other outside information available, there was no reason for Park to not trust that the 1988 Olympics happened in Tokyo. It’s totally believable: Japan occupied the entire Korean peninsula from 1905-1945, and was widely known as an established international power. It was a reasonable substitute faux-host of the 1988 Olympics.

But despite its government’s best efforts, North Korea was not hermetically sealed. Information started to infiltrate the reclusive nation. For Park, it began in high school.

“I started to pick up signals from the Korean Broadcasting System”—South Korea’s national public TV and radio network—“and watched it for about six months. I realized I had to leave and find the truth.”

It wasn’t just the South Korean programs. Subtle clues from elsewhere started to corroborate what he was seeing.

“On a Chinese drama, it showed South Korean rice, and the package was high-class. All these things made me think that if I don’t leave, I’ll be stuck here.”

Park enrolled in university, in part to avoid a prolonged mandatory military service (North Korean university students only have to serve for three years; everyone else, ten). While in university he came across a military map that showed the 88 Olympic Expressway, an eight-lane highway that runs through the middle of Seoul, built in anticipation of the 1988 Olympics.

“I looked for the 1988 Olympic Games on the Olympic list. I couldn’t find it. I was interested in sports, so I looked for sports newspapers and magazines. They said [the 1988 Olympics] happened in Tokyo, but I doubted it.”

He knew then that Seoul had, in fact, hosted the Olympics. A surprising feeling came over him. It wasn’t betrayal—his suspicions of his own country had already been confirmed by then. Nor was it anger or envy. He felt proud.

“It was a culture shock that South Korea was hosting the Olympics. I felt really positive that my fellow Koreans could take on such an international event.”

This may sound strange, but the explanation lies in the specific verbiage he used: 동족의 나라, or dongjok-ui nara, literally translates to “country of the same blood.” This speaks to the powerful ethnic nationalism that exists in both of the Koreas. In the same New Year’s speech, Kim Jong-un played to this sentiment. “Since we are compatriots of the same blood as South Koreans, it is natural for us to share their pleasure over the auspicious event and help them,” he said.

Although the North Korean government has historically not been happy to see any sort of South Korean success, defectors I spoke with said many North Koreans themselves feel differently, especially now that outside information flows more freely in the country. The vast history of a shared ethnicity and culture on the peninsula trumps the propaganda when it comes to things like the Olympics.

“On a political level, it’s not good for the government because their rival country is doing all these great things, and they’re not,” Park said. “But the civilians themselves, despite the fact that it’s South Korea, feel pride that Koreans are taking over the international stage.”

Which brings us back to the upcoming Pyeongchang Games, now less than a month away. According to Park, the Winter Games aren’t as important as the Summer Olympics for North Koreans—something most sports fans can understand—but the same pride still swells in citizens. Park wants to see North Korean athletes at the Winter Games, and he suspects that most North Koreans do, too. On Tuesday, officials from North and South Korea met for the first time in two years to discuss the details of a North Korean delegation participating in the Games. Some see a diplomatic opportunity, others are wary that it’s a North Korean ploy to ease recent sanctions. Those are political talking points for Park. To him, there are greater concerns.

“I want North Korea to participate in the Olympics. It’s an opportunity to improve the relationship between the North and South. Sanctions on North Korea are sanctions against my parents and siblings.”

It looks as if Park will get his wish. At the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, a joint statement from officials of both Koreas confirmed that the North will send athletes and cheerleaders to the Pyeongchang Olympics. Which leaves the most important question for a conflicted sports fan: who will he cheer for if North Korea plays against South Korea?

“I’ll mainly cheer for the North Korean team. But it may change depending on the situation,” he said, a puckish smile creeping across his face. “Sometimes I like cheering for weaker teams.”