Olympics unite Koreas after 65 years, but will it spark real change?

By Jennie Oh and Danielle Haynes  |  Feb. 10, 2018 at 6:00 AM
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SEOUL, Feb. 10 (UPI) -- Marching behind a flag of an undivided Korean peninsula, some 190 athletes from South and North Korea made a joint entrance at the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games.

From the seats, emotion-filled cries of "we are one!" and "unify the fatherland" filled the air as the North Korean cheering team chanted, waving the white-and-blue flags symbolizing Korean unification.

The show of unity between the two Koreas reflects the recent change of atmosphere in cross-border relations, with the Moon Jae-in administration eagerly accommodating the North's participation in the Games.

However, public opinion in the South is divided on whether relations with the North will actually improve once the Olympics are over.

In a poll conducted by the Korean Society Opinion Institute of 1,014 adults last week, 53 percent of respondents said they believe the Pyeongchang Olympics will not improve relations between the two Koreas.

What's more uncertain for South Koreans is the idea of unification, which has lost its luster for some over the decades.

"Marching together in the Olympics -- it just seems symbolic. I know the older generation see them as family as they share a bond but that's something our generation lacks. It's good that the two Koreas are trying to improve relations, although I can't help but have some reservations," Um Sung-soo, a 37-year-old office worker from Ulsan City, told UPI.

"I'm not sure if unification will work but I think it's good that we're trying and cooperating in the Olympics. I think we should continue these efforts," said Kim Beom-joon, a 49-year-old office worker from Busan City.

"The Olympics seems like a political show -- and South Korean players losing their spots to North Korean players for the joint women's ice hockey team is unfair. The idea of unification isn't something that I've thought about," said Na Yu-ri, a 33-year-old office worker from Bundang City.

Just 60 miles away from the flurry of unification flags in the Olympic stadium lies the heavily fortified border that divides the two Koreas.

The division of the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel took place in 1945, when the Soviet Union and United States occupied the North and South respectively following World War II. But how that came to be dates back further, to the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.

At that time, Korea was under the rule of Japan, which annexed the peninsula in 1910 and removed the last united Korean leader, Emperor Sunjong.

Japan lost control of the peninsula in 1945, when it was defeated at the end of World War II. The United States, Soviet Union and China agreed that Japan should lose control over all territories it took by force and placed the peninsula under a trusteeship.

The Soviet Union occupied North Korea and the United States occupied the South, separating the two territories by the 38th parallel. Koreans on both sides had varying ideas about the future government of the peninsula, though many agreed the peninsula should be unified.

But the Soviet-controlled North and U.S.-controlled South remained separated, the North declaring itself the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the South calling itself Republic of Korea. In 1950, skirmishes along the border precipitated a surprise attack by troops from communist-dominated North Korea, starting the Korean War.

The North took control of much of the South before a U.N.-backed force of U.S. troops pushed back the invading troops and entered the North's territory.

China, which now wielded influence over the North, pushed back the South's troops in 1951, and though the war would last for three years, the border largely remained along the 38th parallel throughout the rest of the conflict and beyond.

The two sides signed an armistice agreement in July 1953, creating the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a 2.5-mile-wide buffer between the two countries along their shared 160-mile border.

Nearly 65 years later, the border remains intact and the two Koreas couldn't be more different.

"There have been intermittent interactions between the South and North but the two different regimes have been racing in opposite directions so their differences have only grown. North Korea has also consistently launched provocations on the South," Kim Tae-woo, former president of the Korea Institute for National Unification, told UPI.

The researcher said these include the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 that killed all 115 people on board, and various assassination attempts targeting former South Korean Presidents Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan.

Since the 1990s, the North launched direct artillery attacks in the West Sea, breaching the Northern Limit Line between the South and North. In 2010, the North torpedoed the Cheonan naval ship, killing 46 sailors on board. Denying any role, the North fired dozens of shells at Yeonpyeong Island six months later, killing two South Korean soldiers.

"Both Seoul and Pyongyang have talked about their desire for unification but the North's consistent acts of hostility since the 1950s have stated otherwise," Kim Tae-woo said.

The two Koreas also have opposing views on the concept of unification.

Article Four of the South Korean Constitution stipulates the South will pursue unification "based on the principles of freedom and democracy," which indicates it cannot recognize an authoritarian regime.

However, the North's idea of unification is uniting the Korean peninsula under its supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, overthrowing the South Korean government.

Hoping peace talks lead to unification without compromising either democratic or communist principles is ignoring the elephant in the room.

"For unification to take place, one of the regimes must be compromised. So calling for unification during cross-border talks at Panmunjom or even forming a united Korean sports team is only symbolic. It only amounts to diplomatic rhetoric. Of course, the South and North can continue exchange and cooperation to live side by side for the time being," Kim Tae-woo said.

Maintaining the status quo while avoiding clashes with the North appears be the preferred option for a large number of South Koreans.

"I like the idea of unification and I think it's nice that North Korea's going to participate in the Olympics but I haven't really thought about unification. I'm not that interested," said Choi Young-hee, a 22-year-old student from Daegu City.

"I don't really think about unification. It doesn't really seem relevant to my life," said Shim Gyung-soo, a 27-year-old student from Daejeon City.

"I have no interest in unification and I don't want it to happen. Our countries are just too different now. Even siblings don't get along and clash. It could just turn nasty," said Lee Jeong-soo, a 54-year-old homemaker from Daegu City.

The KSOI survey also showed that while 71.7 percent of the public believe unification should eventually happen, 63.9 percent believed government policies should prioritize peaceful co-existence and economic cooperation before pursuing unification.

The poll was conducted Feb. 2-3 with a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points with 95 percent confidence level.

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