Lee Sang-hwa and Nao Kodaira
Lee Sang-hwa comforted by Nao Kodaira, with bronze medalist Karolina Erbanova in the background

The final race had completed.

The South Korean champion, Lee Sang-hwa had the weight of the world as she sought her third consecutive gold in the 500-meter speed skating sprint in front of her home fans, but just fell short to Nao Kodaira of Japan. Circling the oval in tears, Lee came upon her rival, her Japanese friend, Kodaira, who put her arm around her shoulder, and created a lasting and powerful image of sportsmanship and friendship – words not often associated with Japan-Korean relations.

Koreans may have been celebrating the unification Olympics, waving the blue-on-white flags showing a single Korea, but the Japanese government wasn’t pleased, officially protesting the use of a flag that included a tiny dot to the east of the Korean peninsula. The Japanese government calls that area Takeshima and believe it is a part of Japan, but it is also called Dokdo in Korean and in fact controlled by South Korea.

It was the Korean’s turn to be offended when NBC analyst, Joshua Cooper Ramo, covering the opening ceremonies at the 2018 Winter Games, described Japan as “a country which occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, but every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural, technological and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation.” The analyst was removed from the broadcast, but the pain remained.

That is until gold medalist Kodaira and silver medalist Lee came together.

The day after their battle on the ice, the two were huddled together near the medal awards stand, cheerfully awaiting their medals. They decided to kill time by going live on social media platform, Instagram, for twenty minutes. People then realized that Kodaira and Lee were indeed friends. In a comfortable mix of Korean, Japanese and English, the two fastest women speed skaters in the world gaily exchanged wishes from their fans, talked about food, music and how they would celebrate when they received their medals.

As you can see in the video of the Instagram feed, they are reading and translating the comments for each other. Early in the broadcast, Lee put her arm around Kodaira and said they were “tomodachi” – friends. We learned that Kodaira likes the Korean dish bulgogi, and that Lee’s birthday was only a few days later (February 25). She made a point to repeat that – “Nao, my birthday this Sunday. Presento onegai shimasu.”

Absolutely, this exchange was one of the sweetest moments of these Olympic Games.

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It’s only 80 kilometers away. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is as far away as many of your car commutes, and yet in the gaiety of the Olympic Games, you forget that military on both sides of the DMZ are at the ready just in case.

And like the DMZ that separates North and South Korea, there is a social DMZ that separates those in Korea who seek reunification, and those who seek to destroy North Korea. That drama played out on Friday, February 9, 2018, hours before the commencement of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

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From the morning, demonstrators carrying flags of South Korea and the United States played loud music and made strident speeches, denouncing the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and very specifically requesting the United States to give a friend a hand. As the poster says:

“We, the South Koreans urge the United States to conduct an immediate preemptive strike on North Korea!”

These anti-North Korean demonstrators were dressed in heavy down jackets, and the average age was easily over fifty.

Also from the morning, about half a kilometer away, demonstrators sporting the blue-on-white reunification flag of Korea were advocating for unity and peace. These group was decidedly younger, many of them appearing to be in their twenties, most of them synchronized in matching white down coats and blue hats. Their posters were decidedly more conciliatory in tone:

White poster: We support peace (between N and S Korea), and joining under one-Korean flag. Welcome North Korean team! Congratulations on the Joint North-South entrance in opening ceremony! This is the Realization of the Peace Olympics.

Blue poster: We enthusiastically welcome our North Korea family.

Pro United Korea Protest_PyeongChang_posters

And so, a little over three hours before the 8 pm start of the opening ceremonies, the two sides were drawn irresistibly together. As I turned to leave the anti-North Korean protests, which featured impassioned ripping apart of images of Kim Jong-un, I noticed up the path I was walking the blue hats of the pro-unification supporters. I did a 180, wondering what would happen….the scene from West Side Story as the Jets and the Sharks approach each other for their rumble, coming to mind.

When the blue hats reached the rotary, the younger members in their white coats gathered in the middle rotary….and did what they do best. Sing and dance. The rumble was on.

Thankfully, this was a peaceful rumble. People on both sides stayed on their own side. The Opening Ceremony started on time without controversy, and athletes from both South and North Korea entered into a raucous stadium together, waving the blue-on-white.

On the whole, surveys indicate that slightly more South Koreans are against the unified team, than for it. The emotions run deep.

But for one night, there was unity.

 

Unification flag Koreas
By Various – Outline drawn by Ksiom, Blue color from the Olympic rings., CC BY-SA 3.0,

It seems hard to believe that a nation would willingly drop usage of their flag to appease another nation, but that is what both North and South Korea are doing at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

The North Korean rocket tests in 2017 were raising tensions around the world, particularly in Asia, but South and North Korean leaders came to an agreement in January to unite the teams of the two border nations, so that they march together on opening day under the same flag.

The flag is starkly simple, a blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula on white. There are variations that include various islands, but the one that will be seen at the Winter Games will be one that includes the oval of Jeju Island near the southern tip of the peninsula.

North and South Korea have united under one flag at three previous Olympics: at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games, the 2004 Athens Summer Games, and the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics. But since then, they have marched under their own flags, most recently at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics.

North and South Korean Flags

There is precedent for this symbolic unity.

East and West Germany were put together under a single team at the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Winter and Summer Olympiads. Their flag was made up of the tri-colors black, red and yellow with the Olympic rings in white centering the flag. The national anthem was Beethoven’s Ninth – Ode to Joy.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, twelve nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union were banded together under the name “The Unified Team,” also known as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). These countries were banded together in this manner because the now independent nations did not have enough time to establish National Olympic Committees with the International Olympic Committee in time.

At both the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics and the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics, members of the Unified Team marched under the Olympic Flag, which was composed of the Olympic Rings on white background. Their national anthem was the Olympic theme.

It’s been eleven years, but North and South Korea will again march under the same flag. The Olympics of Ancient Greece were said to be about taking a pause in the political belligerence of mankind.

Of course, not everyone’s happy about it, as protests against North Korea’s role in the PyeongChang Olympics grow in South Korea. As this AP reports states:

Discontent has grown in South Korea in recent days over plans to include North Korea in high-profile roles during next month’s Games — complaints that prompted protesters on Monday to burn a North Korean flag and an image of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in public.

May the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, which will bring enemy brothers together, show us a better vision of ourselves.

protests against north korea
South Koreans burn a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in front of the Seoul railway station on Jan. 22, 2018. They were protesting a visit by Hyon Song Wol, head of North Korea’s art troupe. (Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)
Imnam Dam and Peace Dam
Google Maps view of the DMZ

It was 1986. Preparations were under way for South Korea’s coming-out party – The 1988 Seoul Olympics. And on the other side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), North Korean began preparations of their own, breaking ground for a dam to be built on the Bukhan River, a short 19 kilometers from the border. Completed in 2003, it is called the Imnam Dam.

Perhaps fears of North Korean terrorism during the South Korean Olympics were top of mind for South Koreans, so they began to imagine the worst. As the New York Times explained in an article in 2007, then President Chun Do-hwan did imagine a scary scenario – the new dam in the North producing a monstrous flood, pounding waters headed straight for the South.

In response to the so-called water-bomb scare, South Korean television networks broadcast artists’ conceptions of monstrous walls of water unleashed from the North Korean dam, wiping out most of Seoul, 120 miles downstream, with the impact of a nuclear explosion during the Olympics.

A year later, in 1987, the fears were too hard to resist, and the South Korean government gave the green light to their own dam project, today called the Peace Dam. Located about 16 kilometers from the border to the north, the Peace Dam took a while to build, and in fact was finally completed in 2005, seven years after the Seoul Olympics. But it stands today, 125 meters high and 600 meters wide. There is actually no reservoir at the Peace Dam. Its sole purpose is to be peace of mind – a wall just in case the feared flood from the North ever comes racing down the Bukhan River – peace of mind in this case that cost USD429 million.

Peace Dam
Peace Dam in South Korea

It actually seems like a bit of expensive folly, and to be fair, the South Korean government suspended construction work on the dam after a few years. But when satellite photos apparently showed signs of cracks in the Imnam Dam in the North, fears of the deluge arose anew in the imaginations of the leaders. Work resumed, and the Peace Dam was finished.

Actually, it is another dam in North Korea that is causing grief – The Hwanggang Dam on the Imjin River, which is 42 kilometers from the DMZ. Over the past several years, there have been 8 cases where North Korean officials released massive amounts of water, causing significant flooding in South Korea. It’s not the “nuclear explosion” impact that was feared in the 1980s, and yet 6 South Koreans were killed when water was released from the Hwanggang Dam in September 2009.

The South and the North have an agreement that the North would provide notice to the South when they intend to release dam waters, commonly after significant rainfall, but in practice, the North Koreans rarely do.

In the end, should they have bothered building the Peace Dam? I guess one could say that they were dam-ed if they did, and dam-end if they didn’t.

“Like the two Koreas, the two dams are twin brothers, born at the same time, facing each other across DMZ,” said Lee Tae-ik, an official at Korea Water Resources Corporation, which maintains the South Korean dam. “The Peace Dam is an inevitable child of a divided nation.”

Defector shot crossing DMZ
Video footage of Defector Shot While Crossing border

Only months before the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, two North Korean soldiers crossed the highly secure demilitarized zone (DMZ) that maintains the nervous peace between South and North. That makes for a total of 4 soldier defections in 2017, compared with two over the previous four years.

On December 21, 2017 a North Korean soldier took advantage of a very thick fog to walk across the border.

More dramatically, on November 13, 2017, a soldier raced to the border in a jeep. Just prior to the border, the defector’s jeep got stuck in a grassy area, forcing the soldier to get out and run, just as North Korean soldiers with rifles appear on foot, firing at the 19-year old defector, and into South Korea. Shot four times but falling in South Korea territory, the defector was dragged to safety by South Korean soldiers.

 

Clearly, it is very hard to cross the DMZ from North into South. More importantly, only soldiers have access to the North-South border areas, so the general population has very little chance to cross there.

The majority of defectors from North Korea go north to China or Russia. Since 1953 and the end of the Korean War, it is estimated that anywhere from 100- to 300,000 North Koreans have defected overall. Russia has about 10,000, many who have escaped the logging camps in North Korea. China may have as many as 30- to 50,000 North Koreans blending into Chinese society. The majority of those defectors are women, who marry Chinese men, settling into a quiet life in order to avoid being arrested by authorities and deported back to likely punishment in North Korea.

Thousands of others have made the journey down to the southern part of China where they make their way Laos and Thailand, or through Mongolia, assuming that they can avoid the clutches of Chinese authorities ready to send them back.

North Korean boat washes up in Akita
Eight bodies found as second suspected North Korean boat washes up in Akita Prefecture

Japan has also been a destination since the late 1980s. North Koreans make their journey over 400 miles across the Sea of Japan to Aomori, Fukui or the Noto Peninsula in Ishikawa. On November 27, 2017, a wooden boat in poor condition washed up on the shore of Akita, in the northern part of Japan. Eight bodies, thought to be North Korean defectors, were found inside the boat. Only the week before, eight men from North Korea arrived on Japanese soil by boat, alive. In fact, in 2017, 44 boats from North Korea have made it to Japan this year.

US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley
US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley

Members of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics Organizing Committee must be pulling their hair out.

On December 5, the IOC banned the Russia national team from the upcoming winter games. In reaction to losing representatives from one of the biggest and best national teams, president of the organizing committee, Lee Hee-beom, was quoted as saying, he didn’t expect the IOC “to go this far.”

Then on December 8, U. N. Ambassador from the United States, Nikki Haley, apparently raised the possibility of Team USA declining their invitation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics due to fears that North Korea will create such an environment of uncertainty about safety that Americans would not be safe in South Korea.

Haley’s comments prompted perceived backtracking by officials as White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was quoted as saying that “no official decision has been made” about America not going to PyeongChang.

What’s interesting is how the press kind of over-reacted to Haley’s comments, in my view, reading a bit too much into the tea leaves. According to SB Nation, Haley’s quote was actually a very indirect reference to the Olympics.

Haley saying that U.S. involvement is an “open question” was part of a larger quote — one that could hint at the topic never being raised in the first place.

“There’s an open question. I have not heard anything about that, but I do know in the talks that we have — whether it’s Jerusalem or North Korea — it’s about, how do we protect the US citizens in the area?”

By saying “I have not heard anything about that” Haley’s answer seems to imply that no discussion is taking place on whether the U.S. will skip the games. Her saying it’s an “open question” is making the rounds, however, and that’s what people are picking up on.

Earlier in the month, National Security Advisor to the US government, H. R. McMaster said, “Yes” to the question if Americans should feel safe about going to the Winter Olympics in Korea next year. But one word alone from McMaster will not diminish the fear.

McMaster tweet

In recent months, France, Austria and Germany have also expressed concerns about safety in Korea, and raised the possibility of not going to the Winter Games in February. And with Russia out and America hinting at an exit as well, the PyeongChang is looking, quite possibly, at winter of discontent.

Otto F. Warmbier
Otto F. Warmbier in North Korea
22-year-old American, Otto Warmbier, was released in mid-June, 2017 from a North Korean prison in a coma, only to die a few days later after returning home.

Test missiles routinely take off from North Korea, much to the alarm of Japan, China and the rest of the world.

It appears no one really knows how to deal effectively with the North Korean government, and so the world is in a sudden state of panic every time North Korea makes noise.

And yet, South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, is thinking out loud, wondering why we can’t just all get along. As South Korea will be hosting the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang in early 2018, President Moon is looking for opportunities to bring North and South Korea together.

One idea is to have North Korea host an event, since there are skiing and skating venues in the North. One of the places that could host skiing events is Masikryong Ski Resort. About a 3-hour drive East of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, Marikryong was established by the North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un.

According to the Telegraph, the Masikryong Ski Resort was criticized internationally for employing child labour to keep this largely underused resort available to service the elite of North Korean society. Click on the image below to see a video created by the North Korean government promoting the site.

Marikryong promotion video

Another idea is to have a joint North and South Korean team. “I believe in the strength of sports that has been brokering peace,” President Moon said in this Channel News Asia article. “If a North Korean delegation takes part in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, I believe it will greatly contribute to realizing the Olympic values of friendship and peace.”

Currently, no one in North Korea is eligible for the upcoming Winter Games. There is hope that the two Koreas could field a women’s ice hockey team for the PyeongChang Games.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to thaw lingering tensions as we try to bring North Korea on board,” said Do Jong-hwan, Minister of culture, sports and tourism, according to the Korea Herald. If the North Koreans participate, he believes the PyeongChang Games could be one day known as “The Peace Olympics.”

South Korea Koreas Tension

Tensions between North Korea and South Korea are high. With multiple missile tests in 2017, North Korea is believed to have the capability to drop nuclear bombs on South Korea and Japan today.

The symbolic and real divide between North and South is the demilitarized zone, aka the DMZ – a 4-km wide no-man’s land that serves as a buffer between highly armed military forces on both sides. Families have been reunited through this land route from North to South. But in the times when athletes travel to events where both North and South Koreans compete, they have done so by sea or by air. Most recently, a South Korean women’s soccer team went to North Korea, and a North Korean women’s hockey team went to South Korea for respective tournaments.

When the PyeongChang Winter Games commence in February, 2018, North Korean athletes will walk through the DMZ for the first time, according to Lee Hee-beom, head of The PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG).

South Korea will welcome North Korea and when they decide to come, the South Korean government will allow them to come by road. And when they have supporting teams, the (South) Korean government will allow them to come by ship. All nations are very welcome, including North Korea and Russia. We want it to be the peace games.

No North Koreans have yet qualified for the PyeongChang Games, so it likely would not be a parade of athletes marching through the DMZ. But as Lee has said, the optics are the key. “Symbolically, to maintain peace in the Korean peninsula, their participation is very important, and for the success of the Olympic Games.”

I don’t know what it is like at the DMZ. But in June, 1985, I walked through a highly secured border checkpoint separating East and West Berlin, a place known then as Checkpoint Charley on the West Berlin side. I remember white walls and towers, military men with machine guns, and deathly silence. As a typical 22-year-old wise-cracking New Yorker, who liked to joke about everything, I found myself in a state of intense suppression, as I see in my diary of that time.

Checkpoint Charley on the eastern side is hardly intimidating in appearance, but you feel the intensity of the situation. You can’t take pictures, and for me the hardest part, you keep your snide remarks to yourself. There is dead silence as you walk through the cement corridors. A single watchtower glances at the grounds, but the electricity of the moment prevented me from snapping a noisy picture. The guard inside the customs office joked with Fenz, and that helped ease the tension, but the sensation of freedom was never so exhilarating when you realized that you were through. Violently spattered with graffiti, the wall (on the West Berlin side) remains a moving testament to the shackled human soul.

The Wall 3
Roy after walking through Checkpoint Charley to West Berlin and freedom
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Syngman Rhee Line: a boundary established by South Korean President Syngman Rhee to demarcate the South Korean maritime border, a line disputed by the Japanese government and one that Japanese fishing boats would persistently cross.

Korea and Japan has history. Over 1500 years of cultural exchange, trade and military conflict has shaped an affinity and a rivalry that goes from love to hate and back.

In the days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, before they would face off in men’s and women’s volleyball, the two nations were facing off in the high seas. On Monday, October 7, 1964, according to The Japan Times, a Japanese fishing boat was stopped by a South Korean patrol ship. The Korean authorities were attempting to stop the Japanese boat from fishing in what South Korea claimed were their territorial waters.

The seven Japanese fishermen were escorted onto (taken prisoner by?) the South Korean patrol boat. Apparently the seas were rough, and the two boats collided, creating damage to the fishing boat. Eventually, the 77.5 ton fishing boat, named No. 58 Hoyo Maru, sank.

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Japan Times, October 6, 1964

The Korean boat also suffered some damage and apparently a Korean coast guard was sent to do repair work, according to The Yomiuri. The man fell into the water, but was fortunately picked up by another Japanese fishing boat close by. A second Korean coast guard was in a boat looking for the first one and found him being cared for (captured?) on the Japanese boat, and boarded (was taken prisoner by?) the Japanese boat.

Which set up the “prisoner exchange”.

When the Japanese realized that the Koreans were holding 7 Japanese fishermen at the same time the Koreans realized that the Japanese were holding 2 Korean coast guard personnel, they probably thought they had spent enough time in the tense choppy waters of the Pacific Ocean. A trade was made and all parties went to their respective homes.

But this maritime battle would continue for another year, until the approval of the Japan-Korea Fishery Agreement in 1965. Until that time, nearly 4,000 Japanese had been arrested and over 300 Japanese boats by South Korean authorities. Additionally 44 people had died in these fishing conflicts.

The Japanese men’s and women’s volleyball teams handily defeated their South Korean opponents, but you can bet the fans and the teams in those matches were a tad more pumped up to sink the players on the other side of the net.

Korean Rio Archery Team
South Korea’s Archery Team for the Rio Olympics Korea’s team comprises recurve men Kim Woojin, Ku Bonchan and Lee Seungyun and recurve women Choi Misun, Ki Bo Bae and Chang Hye Jin.
Nothing like an Olympic Games to get a nation to focus. And when South Korea was awarded the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, the National Olympic Committee and Korean Government drew a bullseye on archery.

Over the past 7 Summer Games, South Korea has won 18 of 28 possible gold medals, whether individual or team, men or women. In fact, the South Korean women’s team has won gold at every Olympics since 1988.

This is not luck. This is a significant investment in identifying archery talent early, and developing the strongest archers so that the pool competing for international competition is deep. This is how the BBC explained the South Korean archery talent machinery.

Koreans are introduced to archery at primary school, with talented children receiving up to two hours training a day. The less able are then weeded out at middle school, high school and university level until the very best are hired as adults by the company teams run by organisations such as car manufacturer Hyundai.

Korean Kids Archery

Approximately 30% of the Korean Archery Association’s (KAA) budget comes from the country’s Olympic Committee, but the main financial strength of the system is from these 33 company teams who provide a wage and a pension to archers employed solely to compete for them.

Here’s how a former South Korean archer explains the intense competition that yields world champions.

With so many top class archers around (back in 2004, a non-Korean archer who was ranked 5th in the world had the same competition record as a Korean archer placed 90th in the country), no one is guaranteed a victory or a spot in the national team. Many former gold medalists have been struck off a year or so later because others (and some of them newbies) have surpassed them in ranks. It’s a sport where seniority really doesn’t matter at the end of the day, allowing for true competitive spirit to flourish.

Apparently, the sport of archery is expensive – a single arrow costing around $40. And because archery in South Korea is so well funded, their archers can spend all their time sharpening their craft. Again, the former archer describes this world-class level of dedication.

The sport is also very well-funded, and athletes really get to focus on what they do best. This means that they practise like machines. The 2012 London Olympics women’s team said that they shoot 500 arrows a day. As far as I know, Ki shoots with a 40 pound bow. Obviously I’m a bad point of comparison, but I am pretty much done for the day after shooting a double Portsmouth (120 arrows) with a 34 pound bow.

As it turns out, only one person from the 2012 London Games will be returning to the 2016 Games, Ki Bo-bae, who won gold in the women’s individual and women’s team competitions. The rest, you can bet are the best of the Korean up and comers.

Any sure bets for the Rio Olympics? South Korean archery is looking like a bullseye.

Ki bo-bae portrait
Ki Bo-bae at the London Summer Games