South Korea's Chilly Response to a Joint Olympic Team

The hoped-for breakthrough for sports diplomacy isn’t turning out the way Seoul had planned.

North Korean women's ice hockey players arrive at the South Korea's national training centre in Jincheon, South Korea, on January 25, 2018. (Song Kyung-Seok / Reuters)
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1991 was a watershed year for sports diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula. That year, South Korea and North Korea fielded joint men’s and women’s teams at the World Table Tennis Championships, as well as a joint boys’ team in the FIFA World Youth Championship. Both teams—the Koreas’ first in international competitions since their division in 1945—performed well: The unified ping pong team won gold in the women’s team event, while the unified youth soccer team defeated Argentina at the group stage. The South Korean press hailed their success. An article in Dong-A Ilbo, a conservative daily, breathlessly declared the women’s ping pong team’s win “the happiest news in the 46 years of the division of the Korean people.”

Twenty-seven years later, the two Koreas will field another unified team, this time in women’s ice hockey at next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Amid the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s very participation in the games was considered a major breakthrough. Both South and North Korea’s entire delegations will also enter the opening ceremony under the same flag, under the name “Korea.”

But pageantry and fraternal goodwill aside, the International Olympics Committee’s decision to allow the North to participate hasn’t been met with the universal acclaim one might expect. Indeed, unlike in 1991, South Korea’s reception to North Korea is likely to be as chilly as the Gangwon-do breeze.

Domestic politics explains at least part of South Korea’s frostiness. South Korea’s conservatives, whose approval ratings have plummeted since the impeachment of their former president Park Geun Hye, have rediscovered their favorite accusation against the liberals: that they are soft on North Korea. Na Gyeong Won, a legislator and member of the conservative opposition, has called the upcoming games the “Pyongyang Olympics,” a derisive label that conservative newspapers—including Dong-A Ilbo, which wrote so glowingly of the unified ping pong team in 1991—have gleefully echoed. That South Korea’s conservatives are trying to denigrate the first Winter Olympics in their country in an effort to score political points is an extraordinary display of cynical partisanship. Their efforts are also more than a little hypocritical. As recently as December 2014, South Korea’s conservative party was urging the government to consider splitting hosting duties with North Korea.

Partisanship alone, however, does not explain South Korea’s stance on the North Korean athletes. In a poll conducted immediately after Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address, in which he announced North Korea would be willing to participate in the Winter Olympics, 65 percent of South Koreans said they believed such conciliatory gestures did not mean his attitude towards them had changed in any way; 90 percent believed North Korea would never give up its nuclear weapons. Support for the unified Korean team is lukewarm: 44.1 percent in favor versus 42.6 percent against, according to a recent poll.

The same poll found that the strongest opposition to the unified Korean team comes from younger South Koreans. Fifty percent of South Koreans in their 30s opposed the formation of the unified team. Rather than feeling some surge of inter-Korean nationalism, younger South Koreans seem to view the North Korean athletes as free riders leeching off a South Korean team that worked hard to qualify for the Olympics. (In this rendering, the fact that South Korea’s women’s hockey team, ranked 22nd in the world, qualified automatically by virtue of being from the host country is casually forgotten.)

Justified or not, the younger generation’s feelings about the joint team offer a window into its broader attitude toward North Korea. Unlike their parents, they have little reason to feel kinship with North Koreans: A South Korean in her 30s was born a full generation after the end of the Korean War and came of age in the mid-90s. By then, Seoul had already grown into a glittering metropolis, while hundreds of thousands of North Koreans were starving to death during the March of Struggles from 1994 to 1998.

Although South Korea’s public education system emphasizes that all Koreans belong to the same minjok (“people”), young South Koreans can hardly identify with North Koreans. Young South Koreans tend to be wealthy, global-minded and well-traveled; those to the north are destitute and steeped in the Kim regime’s propaganda. In a hypothetical, reunified Korea, the burden of taking care of the North Koreans would fall on the South Koreans, and especially on the younger generation.

All this places Moon Jae In, the president of South Korea, in a difficult position. He has tried to leverage North Korea’s participation in the Olympics as a part of the peace process—a trust-building exercise, on the global stage. But the South Korean public is less than enthused. By the end of 2017, his approval rating was a stratospheric 77 percent; now, it sits at 64 percent, with a significant decline among voters in their 20s and 30s who once supported him at over 90 percent.

Moon, the son of North Korean refugees, is likely to be the last South Korean president with any kind of sentimental aspiration for a reunified Korean Peninsula. His successor will probably be younger than him, and more attuned to the preferences of the younger South Koreans who are drifting further from North Koreans each year. Even for those South Koreans who favor dialogue with North Korea, the failure of the Sunshine Policy, Seoul’s previous attempts at diplomatic engagement with Pyongyang, left a bitter taste. All of this points to an underappreciated conclusion: that the Olympics gesture may represent the last olive branch that Seoul ever extends to Pyongyang.

The memory of the Sunshine Policy’s failure also drives Moon, who has taken a more hawkish approach to North Korea than expected. A former special-forces paratrooper, he has pursued a combination of pressure—“decapitation” missile drills and the military expansion—and dialogue. Compared to his liberal predecessors, Moon’s reserve of patience toward North Korea appears to be lower.

Indeed, in a presidential staff meeting on January 22, Moon said that “no one can be optimistic about how long the atmosphere for a dialogue [with the Kim regime] would continue.” If North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics does not lead to more talks, he said, “it will not be easy to find another occasion for a dialogue.” On one level, Moon was making a plea for South Koreans to welcome North Korea to the Games. But there may be a deeper, more ominous message to Pyongyang: This is your final chance. Don’t waste it.