The following is an opinion piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board.
Think of the Winter Olympics and the first thing that comes to mind is probably figure skaters doing impressive jumps on ice, skilled snowboarders doing backflips in the air and bobsledders moving swiftly down narrow tracks. To most, the Winter Olympics is a chance for countries to flaunt their athletic achievements. It is a matter of sport, team effort and national pride. This year, however, the focus is on a new protagonist: North Korea. As an isolated country that has received little coverage on anything other than its nuclear arsenal for a long time, its participation in this year’s winter games is an unusual phenomenon worth taking a closer look at. By paying attention to the delegation’s appearance, we gain a better understanding of its people and the purpose of the country’s assistance in both a social and political context.
Although North Korea has participated in the Olympics in the past, the current political climate has limited the talk of the country to its stance on nuclear weapons. With Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un discussing a potential nuclear catastrophe, reading news about North Korea in a different scenario, an international sporting event, is refreshing and encouraging. For Northwestern students hoping to get a more comprehensive global perspective, it is an opportunity to see the secluded nation with a new set of eyes.
After eight years, North Korea finally decided to make a reappearance at the Winter Olympics. For the first time ever, both Koreas decided to compete under a joint flag despite the pair's decades of political tensions. To a certain extent, it is a show of unity; a reminder that two neighboring countries that have been split for over 70 years are capable of temporarily putting their differences aside to make a political statement unlike any other. Despite extensive criticism, South Korea even agreed to pay for North Korea’s delegation. The South Korean government is expected to pay nearly $2.64 million to cover the cost of its neighbor. While many South Koreans are skeptical about North Korea’s true intentions, making a joint appearance in the games is a call for reconciliation with more than just monetary. It is the epitome of what the Olympics stands for: the values of friendship, respect and excellence.
Members of both delegations marched together in the Opening Ceremony carrying a unified flag that illustrated the silhouette of the Korean Peninsula. They have also come together in a joint women’s hockey team to further the claim for unity. Yet while the international response to this union has been predominantly positive, many South Koreans were not as thrilled with the idea of new members being added so abruptly. The women’s hockey coach, Sarah Murray, claimed joining forces with North Korea could potentially cause “damage” to the team. So far, the hockey players have been off to a rough start (they haven’t won any games yet, and it took them three matches to score their first goal). In addition to athletic performance, the Korean hockey team has also experienced challenges trying to properly communicate with members of the North Korean delegation. According to the Canadian coach, her team had to develop a dictionary that would translate hockey terms “from English to [Standard] Korean to North Korean.” Language barriers are some of the many obstacles that come with joining two separate nationalities under one title.
But the joint hockey team is not the only unusual sighting at the event. North Korea’s “army of beauties” have been center-stage in this year’s games. With carefully choreographed routines, matching winter outfits and strict discipline, North Korea’s cheerleaders have received a variety of responses from spectators. Some view them as part of the country’s propaganda, with the purpose of diverting people’s attention from nuclear talks. The cheerleaders are kept isolated from other athletes and behave in a military fashion. More than athletes, they are symbols of North Korean ideology. They reflect the way Kim Jong Un has kept his people under close scrutiny and how big of a divide lies between the dictator’s country and the outside world.
Whether you believe North Korea’s intentions in the Olympics are pure or not, one thing is certain: they have stolen this games’ spotlight. The unprecedented union between the not-so-friendly neighbors is one that has revolutionized what the Winter Olympics entail. It is not only about competition. Rather, it is an event that brings peoples from all over the world together in the attempt of narrowing the gaps that otherwise divide us.
And now, I encourage you to pay close attention to this year’s unexpected characters, to appreciate the unusual sighting of the reclusive country at an international sports competition and to notice the distinctive contrast between the neighboring Koreas. Their appearance this year is a political statement that is impossible to ignore. More importantly, it begs the question: what next is in store for North Korea and how will it impact the global community?