Implications of Pyeongchang Olympics

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For the first time since the Seoul Olympics of 1988, it was announced back on July 6, 2011, that the Olympics would be returning to South Korea, with Pyeongchang making the winning bid to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. Unlike the Olympics in Seoul, however, North Korea temporarily lifted their long-standing boycott of Olympic participation by sending 22 athletes to South Korea to compete under a unified Korean flag, a surprising move from a country which has been using its nuclear arsenal to continuously isolate themselves from the rest of the world. As a result, the Olympics have opened up a rare opportunity for talks between South and North Korea, with the South hoping they can try to relax international tensions caused by the rise of North Korea’s nuclear program. South Korea hopes that by presenting a united front, these Olympics can help foster peace between the two divided countries.

The reaction from South Korean citizens, however, are quite mixed, and the cheers the unified Korean athletes received when they walked out during opening ceremonies may have been a misnomer of the true attitude of the country. In an interview with Business Insider, Ian Jamieson, the Korean country manager for Visa, a major Olympic sponsor, stated, “there is a polarization within Korea about whether they are for it or against it, the unified hockey team is not polling well with the younger demographic. All the brands are probably trying to stay away from that.” With a skeptical public watching, President Moon Jae-In of South Korea will look for something in these talks with North Korea that he can use to show his people that the two nations are taking steps toward peace.

The reality of the situation is that President Moon needs to definitively convince his people that North Korea is not a threat to them, a difficult task considering the two sides are technically still at war. Many from South Korea are speculating that these “talks” are nothing but an opportunity for good optics for both sides, and that nothing will change as a result of the Olympics. Additionally, many citizens don’t even want to unify Korea, considering the hatred that still exists between both nations. In response to the New York Times, Peter Kim, a South Korean citizen from Seoul, asserted “the current government is misleading the South Korean people to think that “peace for show” is what people want. Young South Koreans do not want to give unconditional benefits to North Korea, which is a terrorist country.”

With an estimated cost of $10 billion to host the Olympics according to CNN, South Korea has gone all in on this opportunity to attempt to smooth things over with North Korea. While it would be ludicrous to expect South Korea to initiate peace between the two countries in such a short time, President Moon seems satisfied with what they have been able to accomplish. “This has been a very successful Olympics,” Moon said in response to questions from USA Today reporters. “We’ve achieved many of the goals that we set out to achieve.”

While the Pyeongchang Olympics may do little to thaw the hatred between the citizens of North and South Korea, the talks are a step up from the silence that preceded it. Using these Olympics to open up the door to negotiation is a move that may have implications for South Korea long after the conclusion of the games.