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The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea will officially kick off with an opening ceremony at 8:00 pm local time on Friday, February 9. Among the thousands of competitors, representing 93 countries, participating in the parade will be twenty-two athletes from North Korea. Though the country’s last-minute decision to compete in the international multi-sport event, that ends on February 25, is certainly significant, what is even more so is the January 19 announcement that the two Koreas will march under the same flag.
Also, in a historic first, twelve North Korean athletes will form a joint women’s ice hockey team with South Korea. The other ten will compete in a variety of events including figure skating, short track speed skating, Alpine skiing, and cross-country skiing. North Korea will also send a troupe of cheerleaders to perform alongside other nations at the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as several cultural artists who will impress the residents of Seoul and Gangneung with taekwondo demonstrations and orchestra performances.
This isn’t the first time the feuding neighbors have united under the Korean Unification Flag, which shows a blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula on a white background. They have previously used it in the 41st World Table Tennis Championships, the 8th FIFA World Youth Football Championships, two Asian Games, as well as four Olympics, most recently the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
While sharing a flag has always raised hope of easing tensions between the two Koreas, that has yet to happen. That is probably why many South Koreans were opposed to the idea this year. There is also the fear that the last-minute announcement will disrupt the women’s ice hockey team’s training and reduce their chances of bringing home a medal. South Korean president Moon Jae-in, however, hopes that the decision will open the door for more peace negotiations.
Korea was split into two nations when the Japanese empire, which had ruled the country for 35 years, was dismantled in 1945 at the end of World War II. The Americans took control of the south, while communist Russia took charge of the north. In 1950, North Korea launched a surprise attack to try to gain control of South Korea, leading to the three-year Korean War. By the time a cease-fire was declared in 1953, over 2.5 million people had been killed. Since the war ended with an armistice, not a peace agreement, the two Koreas are technically still at war, and neither officially recognizes the other as a country.
While South Korea is now a democracy with a thriving economy, North Korea remains a dictatorship ruled by the same family for three generations — Kim Il-Sung, then his son Kim Jong-Il, and now the grandson Kim Jong-Un. Over the years, there have been several efforts, including two summits in 2000 and 2007, to improve the relationship between the two sides. However, the reconciliation attempts have, thus far, resulted in little concrete change.
Whether the most recent peacemaking gestures result in any long-term changes in the relationship between the two nations remains to be seen. But as International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach says, “The Olympic Games show us what the world could look like if we were all guided by the Olympic spirit of respect and understanding. This is the Olympic message that will go from PyeongChang to the world.”
Resources: quartz.com, cnn.com, abcnews.com. telegraph.co.uk