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North Korea's Olympic participation sparks criticism and flag-burning in Seoul

By Jennie Oh
North Korea's Olympic participation sparks criticism and flag-burning in Seoul
Members of conservative groups burn an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a rally against North Korea's participation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, in front of Seoul Station in Seoul. Photo Courtesy of EPA-EFE/Kim Chul-soo.

SEOUL, South Korea, Jan. 22 (UPI) -- Seoul's efforts to arrange North Korea's participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics continued to draw sharp criticism from many in the South, with President Moon Jae-in's approval rating suffering a significant drop.

This comes amid a North Korean advance team's visit to the South to arrange cultural performances in Seoul and the eastern city of Gangneung during the Olympic Games.

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With further South-North exchanges scheduled throughout the week, the presidential office and ruling Democratic Party have shown optimism for inter-Korean relations, saying the North's Olympic participation would turn the Games into an "Olympics of Peace."

However, opposition lawmakers on Monday criticized that the government was politicizing the sporting event and cast doubt on the prospect of improving cross-border ties through a one-off event.

Hong Jun-pyo, Chairman of the main conservative Liberty Korea Party, said having the North's Olympic advance team in the country was turning the Games into the "Pyongyang Olympics."

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He suggested that the Moon administration could just be "buying time for North Korea to complete its nuclear program."

Far-right activists took more drastic measures, clashing with police as they rallied outside Seoul Station where the seven-member North Korean advance team was due to arrive.

The protestors, led by Korean Patriots Party, burned a picture of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as well as the North Korean flag and the two Korea's joint flag for the Olympics.

Athletes also voiced concern, following the International Olympic Committee decision to allow 22 North Korean athletes to take part in the Games next month and have them march under a single "unification flag" with South Korean athletes.

The IOC also ruled the two Koreas would form a single women's ice hockey team.

Assurances from the presidential office on Sunday that it would minimize disadvantages for South Korean athletes appeared to underwhelm critics.

Sports professionals argued that a united team's performance would be compromised and that South Korean players would be deprived of their hard-earned opportunities to compete.

Sarah Murray, coach of the South Korean women's ice hockey team, said last week she had mixed feelings about coaching the joint Korean team, Yonhap reported.

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While coaching the first-ever unified Korean team for the Olympic Games would be "exciting," she expressed regret that it would come at the expense of her South Korean athletes.

Murray had previously said the impending decision was too sudden and it would be "dangerous for team chemistry" to add North Korean players at this stage.

Lee Min-ji, an ice hockey player who was dropped from the Olympic roster, expressed her dismay on Saturday.

"As an athlete who dreamt of the Olympics and strived towards it until just yesterday, I am saddened because of the situation that has hit the women's ice hockey team," she wrote in an Instagram post.

Addressing various concerns, President Moon Jae-in urged members of the public, media and parliament to look at the bigger picture of building peace on the Korean peninsula through the "miraculous" Olympic opportunity.

Maintaining the atmosphere for inter-Korean talks is vital to peacefully resolving the North Korean nuclear issue, he said.

Moon also said efforts are needed to pave the way for dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.

In light of mixed public reactions to the North's Olympic participation, the South Korean leader's approval rating dropped to a four-month low after seeing a decline for two consecutive weeks, pollster Realmeter found Monday

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Among 2,509 South Korean adults surveyed, 66 percent supported Moon's handling of state affairs -- down 4.6 percentage points from the week before.

This marks the second lowest rating Moon has recorded since the third week of September when his approval rating dipped to 65.6 percent following North Korea's sixth nuclear test.

Realmeter said that opposition parties' offensive on North Korea's participation in the PyeongChang Olympics and on cryptocurrency regulations as well as controversy surrounding probes on former President Lee Myung-bak's aides drove down public support.

The survey conducted last week had a 95 percent confidence level with a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points.

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