South Korea city celebrates Winter Olympics as views clash on North Korea

By Elizabeth Shim Contact the Author   |  Feb. 3, 2018 at 9:27 PM
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GANGNEUNG, South Korea Feb. 3 (UPI) -- Choi Byung Kwan remembers the broken bridges, barbed wire encircling a beach, and wildflowers growing over landmines in the Korean demilitarized zone.

The South Korean photographer, who is in his 60s, says he knows the price of peace because he walked 155 miles of the DMZ two decades ago and took a series of haunting photographs of the forbidden area and of North Korea from the border.

His works, currently on view in a retrospective exhibit at the Gangneung Museum of Art in South Korea, are a warning about the current situation on the peninsula, he says.

"Now is the time of crisis," Choi told UPI, referring to the current nuclear standoff with Pyongyang as a sign the situation has worsened, despite the détente ahead of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. "South Koreans do not want to think about war."

Choi might be right.

In Gangneung, one of the two cities in Gangwon Province co-hosting the Winter Games, people were flocking to a local university stadium on Saturday to catch a K-pop concert, where they could also try local foods, including locally brewed coffee.

The coffee beans are imported, but in this city about 75 miles from the North Korea border, the beverage is served in a countless number of coffee shops with hipster appeal.

Lee Mi-na, who oversees the city's annual coffee festival opening this week, says she welcomes détente but is firmly proud it is her country that is hosting the Winter Olympics.

"I have no feelings of hostility toward the North Korean people," Lee told UPI, adding she may not represent the views of her generation because "sentiments are more mixed" in her demographic than among South Koreans in their twenties and thirties.

Lee, who is in her forties, also said living in a remote area away from the capital, Seoul, has helped her gain a different kind of perspective on North Korea, one that softens her stance on the relatively isolated state.

"I welcome the North Korean athletes," she said. "I do not think of North Korea as a country, but rather, a part of Gangwon Province that broke away."

The province was roughly divided into half after the 1950-53 Korean War, and the recently canceled inter-Korea concert was scheduled to take place in North Korea's Kangwon Province.

That Lee and younger South Koreans are pursuing refinement of the local economy in an era of affluence might be good news for older Koreans like Choi, who witnessed his country move from rags to riches in a matter of decades.

"What South Korea has achieved is a beyond-the-imagination miracle," Choi said. "I am very proud."

But the story of South Korea would have not been possible without the United States, and Choi said he is concerned people are forgetting the value of the alliance.

"I place absolute trust in the United States," and in U.S. President Donald Trump, Choi said, adding Trump was right to point out 36,000 U.S. soldiers sacrificed their lives to drive out North Korea.

By contrast, North Korea "can't be trusted" and the regime's recent reconciliation overtures are not completely convincing, according to the photographer.

"Nuclear weapons development is the problem, and after more than a half-century, the traces of a hurtful war history remains," Choi said, referring to his photographs of an eerie DMZ and North Korea propaganda billboards urging South Koreans to defect.

At the local university stadium where the opening event for a state-sponsored "Cultural Olympiad" was taking place, South Korean vendors promoting locally grown foods braved the cold weather to support the Winter Games.

Kim Gyeong-hwan, who owns a pumpkin farm in South Korea's North Chungcheong Province, said the thought of the upcoming Olympics brought a sense of pride and excitement, but added the South has hosted major events multiple times, including the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 2002 FIFA World Cup with Japan.

"We hold these events, then we forget about them," he said.

Kim, 60, said he is not sure whether the slogan of a "Peace Olympics" will prevail after the games are over, and North Korea athletes return to their country.

"We'll have to wait and see," he said.

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