Curtains Rise to Pyeongchang Drama: Dispatch from Olympics

It was certainly a night to remember.

The Winter Olympic Games were officially declared open last night, Feb. 9, at the Olympic Stadium situated in the town of Daegwallyeong, Pyeongchang County, Gangwon Province. (The Pyeongchang Olympics is actually a province-wide Olympics, beyond the county of Pyeongchang, which just by itself is about twice the size of Seoul.) 

Prior to the opening, the ceremony was subject to much media attention, and for good reason: North Korea had, just over one month ago, decided to send a delegation running in the hundreds, including athletes, cheerleaders, musicians, and journalists.

Just several days ago, it was announced that North Korea’s nominal leader Kim Yong-nam and Kim Jong-Un’s sister Kim Yo-jong would join the party — the latter would be the first-ever in the ruling Kim family to visit South Korea since the Korean War ended in an armistice in 1953. A day after attending the opening ceremony, both of them visited the Blue House, the highest-level contact between the two Koreas in around a decade. 

But not everyone was happy at the symbolic thaw in inter-Korean relations. Hundreds of conservative organizations descended into Pyeongchang, mobilizing their people in various locations on the route to Olympic Stadium. One group was located at a road inter-section several kilometers out of town, while another was kettled in a field. Most, if not all, were waving South Korean taegukgi flags, but some were also seen sporting U.S. flags.

The tweet above shows scenes at Hoenggye Rotary, right in front of the Olympic Stadium. Conservative protesters were angered at North Korea’s participation and what they called its politicization of the Olympic Games. 

One group used blaring loudspeakers to get their message across: North Korea, who possesses nuclear weapons, has no place here in South Korea and in the Olympics. Moon Jae-in is propping up the propaganda machine, and should be removed from office.

But the aggressive protesters were just a small part of the larger, diverse crowd. Korean traditional pansori musicians were performing at the stadium entrance, and a group of South Korean students were waving Russian flags, in support of the country’s athletes who were not able to walk out under their own banner due to the recent doping scandal. Across the town, unification flags were hanging, many of them sponsored by pro-unification university groups. 

Inside the hexagonal stadium – a temporary structure, multiple heating stations were installed. Organizers also prepared a goodie bag on each seat, containing heating pads, a hat, and a blanket.

After much ado, including a taekwondo demonstration by both North and South Korean athletes, the show began: At 8:00 p.m., a giant Korean bell appeared in the center of the stadium, followed by fireworks and dramatic lighting effects. Performers came out – reconstructing various scenes from Korean history.

And then I noticed the North Korean cheerleaders, chanting in harmony in synchronized moves. I was surprised at how the group, while segregated, was sitting so close to regular South Koreans, separated by one line of security personnel. There was no opposition in sight.

I asked a South Korean spectator what he thought of it all. He told me, “I don’t oppose them. I’d like to think their presence is for the good of this country.”

The procession of athletes commenced, appearing in order of the Korean vernacular script, hangeulGhana, Greece, Nigeria…and so the list went on.

One of the highlights of the evening was, of course, when delegations from both North and South Korea walked out together under the unification flag. Crowds stood up, erupted, and applauded at the athletes who were adorning white long padded jackets with the word ‘Korea’ written at the back. Looking around the stadium, it was very emotional to watch.

The atmosphere was jubilant – it seemed that people didn’t really care the relatively low-budget theatrics on displays throughout the show, nor did they pay attention to the cold (temperatures hovered around zero-degree Celsius).

In that one moment, all that seemed to count was that image of oneness.

There were plenty of other cool moments: when IOC president Thomas Bach addressed the crowds (nah kidding); when a fleet of 1,218 drones put on a Guinness record-breaking show; when retired figure skater Yuna Kim (the national darling) lit the Olympics cauldron. 

Okay, I got a little excited.

On what seemed to be the last leg of the torch relay’s final stretch, two athletes from the inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team, Chung Su-hyon of North Korea and Park Jong-ah of South Korea, ran up the curved surface of the stadium, towards the cauldron. The crowd waited, expecting the athletes to light the fire. 

Suddenly, an elegant silhouette appeared at the top of the stadium, somehow ice-skating: It was Yuna Kim. The stadium exploded. Her face was blasted on giant screens, with several spectators around me asking, “Why does she look so sad?”

As I was leaving the stadium, I noticed the North Korean cheerleaders rising from their seats too. I approached them, and was surprised again at how relaxed the atmosphere was. The older male delegates from North Korea were chatting among themselves while some of the cheerleaders were giggling. South Korea fans came up to them and said “hello” and “nice to meet you,” some even shaking their hands. And then they were gone.

As they left, I noticed most of North Koreans had left their goodie bags on their seats. Being a scavenger, I took one for myself. Back in my room at night, I opened it, to find the heating pads that one of the cheerleaders had used were still burning.

 

Cover image: North and South Korean athletes walk together in the opening ceremony of Pyeongchang Olympics. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

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Yes, we’re excited, but let’s not forget the complexity of North-South relations outside the Olympics Stadium. Read our coverage concerning this complexity:

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Raphael is a journalist and freelance fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies at Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years, representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.