A Project for Better Journalism chapter

Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

When South Korea hosted the Olympics for the first time, in 1988, North Korea boycotted the games after having orchestrated the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 that killed everyone, 104 passengers and 11 crew members, on board.


Thirty years later, the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang marks South Korea’s second time playing host to the world’s best athletes. Amidst escalating tensions and threats, fueled by verbal posturing from the two leaders of North Korea and the U.S., there was an unexpected announcement that the two Koreas would enter the Opening Ceremony arena under one flag, the Korean Unification Flag, and even compete as one team for the Women’s Ice Hockey event.


While this is not the first time these two countries have marched under the unification flag, it is a rare moment, indeed, for a delegation of North Koreans, including Kim Jong-Un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, to visit South Korea along with their skeleton crew of athletes and a large group of cheerleaders. If nothing else, it is such a far cry from the 1988 Olympics that this seemingly peaceful gesture, 30 years in the making, would warrant, at the very least, a slow-clap moment.


Not so fast. There were three notable oppositions.


Japan lodged a protest because the flag, a simple white background with a sky-blue silhouette of the Korean Peninsula, contains the tiniest little dot that represents a small cluster of barely inhabited islets called Dokdo (Takeshima in Japanese) that are in the center of a controversial property dispute. In my humble opinion, this is a tedious argument since, one, the Korean government has had control of these islets since 1954, and two, after the most recent colonization that was so oppressive and brutal that Japan is still begrudgingly apologizing for the atrocities, it just might be time to, in Elsa’s words, “Let it go.”


U.S. Vice President Pence has also made it more than abundantly clear that the U.S. views this show of temporary unity and harmony as weakness and vowed that “the toughest and most aggressive” sanctions against North Korea will soon be unveiled. If this were Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” this would be Act 3, Scene 5, featuring South Korea as the ungrateful and disobedient Juliet and VP Pence as Lord Capulet who demands that Juliet do as he wishes.


Unlike the feud between the Montagues and Capulets, the historical reasons as to how and why the two Koreas became star-crossed lovers are not a mystery; however, I shall defer to your very capable history teachers as they can better explain all the nuances of the rise of Communism, the Red Scare, and how small countries fall prey to becoming pawns to larger and more powerful countries and their ideologies.


Then, the third, and perhaps the most pertinent, opposition is the disapproval from the younger generation in South Korea, those in their 20s and 30s, the generation twice removed from the rawness of a dying generation’s deep pain. To them, North Korea does not symbolize lost kin but a national threat that has been (mis)handled with kid gloves due to the older generations’ nostalgia. The notion of North Koreans as our people with whom we had once shared language, culture, history, and even blood is but a distant thought, mere words that they read in history books. To them, North Korea is an enemy country that sank a South Korean navy ship 8 years ago. There is no love lost, and when they utter the word “tong-il”, unification, there probably is no hope-filled sorrowful lump in their throats.


My late father was born in Hamgyong-bukdo, the northernmost province of Korea, in 1937 while Korea was still under an oppressive and brutal Japanese colonial rule. When he was seven, Korea was finally liberated in the summer of 1945, and when he was ten, mere three years later and before the country could even begin to recover, he and his family fled their home of many generations to avoid persecution from the communists and walked the length of North Korea to start a new life in South Korea. At one point, they had hoped that this would only be temporary until they returned home. That hope soon turned into dreams of which they dared not speak, lest others would call them delusions.


I am part of the in-between generation, one that has never known a unified Korea, one that has grown up during a time of nightly curfews and monthly civil defense drills, one that was born into a nation steeped in inconsolable sorrow as it still mourned its dead, lost, or left behind people. South Korea had its share of propaganda back then, and we were taught to report any suspicious activities or “communist-looking” people speaking in North Korean dialects.


I used to worry for my “haraboji” and “halmoni” – my paternal grandfather and grandmother. They did not look like communists, but they proudly spoke in thick Hamgyong-bukdo satoori* I would reach up to grab one of their hands protectively in public if anyone gave them a side-eye full of suspicion. My halmoni who was not known for her fuzzy warm tenderness would gruffly shake my sweaty little hand off and ask, “Why do you cling to me so often?”


Because, halmoni, you were my people, my kin, my blood.


While there will not be a unified Korea any time soon or ever, and even though I am a cynic whose motto is the Scout Motto on Red Bull – Always Be Prepared for the Worst! – I am willing to suspend my cynicism long enough to hope for a peaceful resolution to the saga of two Koreas. It may not be a realistic hope, but if the Olympics isn’t a time for hope and peace, when is? Until February 25, until after the Closing Ceremony, I plan on letting my hope flag fly and cheer along with those fabulously quirky North Korean cheerleaders.


Watching my people march together as one nation was not an unemotional moment, and I may have even been verklempt. How my grandparents would have loved to have been alive to see it… cynicism is cheap, but hope can sometimes cost a lifetime of memories and loss.


*Each Korean province has a very distinct dialect, or satoori, and there is no mistaking one for another.