For the first time in over a decade, the so-called Korean unification flag has made an official appearance at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“For quite some time now, South Korea has been very conciliatory and really wanting to overcome past divisions,” Associate Professor of Politics John Grant said.
“The Korean people have a very strong sense of being one people.”
The first time the North and South Koreans marched in unison at an international athletic competition was at the 2000 Olympics in Australia, and they have done so eight more times since then. Grant, along with Professor Emeritus of Politics Will Morrisey, who retired in 2015, and Assistant Professor of Politics Adam Carrington said Korea’s effort toward symbolic unification does not surprise them.
“When I was young, especially into the 80s, it was very common to have lots of demonstrations in the South, particularly from students, for unification,” Grant said.
“It’s not really a political issue in the sense of ‘Oh we want to be under Kim Jong Un and the communist government; it’s ‘We want to be united as one people, and we don’t like the division.’”
Carrington said he noticed the same ideology 10 years ago in Philadelphia among his South Korean roommates.
“They would say, ‘I’m from Korea.’ Now, when you would say, ‘Which one?’ of course they would say, ‘Ok, well, South Korea,’ but they themselves wanted to say ‘I’m from Korea.’”
Morrisey compared Korea’s and the United States’ experiences with civil war and the countries’ efforts to re-establish union.
“In the American civil war, the two sides disagreed about both the re-establishment of political union and, crucially, the character of the regime which would rule that union: commercial republic vs. a slave-based oligarchy,” Morrisey said in an email. “In Korea, the regime issue is commercial republic vs. communist tyranny. Both sides agree in principle to union, hence to allowing the athletes to commingle, while continuing to be in a state of antagonism respecting the regime they hope will rule that union.”
Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attended the Olympics with the North Korean delegation last week. She is the first member of the North’s ruling dynasty to visit South Korea since the 1953 armistice following the Korean War.
“Part of the war-like attitude of the North is connected to propaganda,” Grant said. “They’ve gotten a huge propaganda victory out of this in that they have all the major American newspapers talking about it and saying nice things about North Korea as a whole too, which is kind of striking.”
Almost two weeks ago, CNN published a particularly positive story about Kim’s presence at the games. Morrisey noted that “gushing over leftist tyrants and their representatives” is not new for the news media in commercial republics, as was the case with Lenin, Stalin, Khruschev, Mao, Ho Chih Minh, Gorbachev, at least with regard to some members of the media industry. He also questioned Kim Yo Jong’s authority to negotiate on her brother’s behalf.
“It is reasonable to think that she and/or some of those accompanying her are there to get a better sense of the South Koreans — assessing the strengths and weaknesses of their enemies,” Morrisey said. “In politics, there’s no substitute for face-to-face experience.”
Professor of History Paul Rahe saw Kim Yo Jong’s visit as an example of one of North Korea’s important diplomatic strategies, which is an oscillation between “thuggish threats” and a “charm offensive.” The effect of this strategy on nations like the U.S., he said, is akin to Stockholm Syndrome, in which hostages psychologically develop an alliance with their captors as a way to survive.
“There was a time when there were a lot of aircraft highjackings, and the highjackers would terrorize the people on the plane to keep them in line,” Rahe said. “But they’d also feed them, because they were useful as hostages. And this combination of brutality and kindness is disarming. And so you would have this phenomenon of people on the planes that were highjacked defending the highjackers.”
Rahe said the North Koreans produce the same effect on the U.S. after threatening them and their own southern neighbors with missile attacks.
“They suddenly turn on the charm offensive,” he said. “They send this pretty girl down to charm everyone. Now, she’s also a thug and tortures people. So the effect of it is, they make you afraid, and then they elicit relief and warm feelings. And the sense that you’ve got to cope with this somehow, wanes.”
Rahe also emphasized that the America is experiencing an era of “extreme partisanship,” causing some media to become a mouthpiece for North Korean propaganda.
“In some corners, this will elicit warm feelings about Kim Jong Un and what a fine man he is,” he said. “When domestic factionalism becomes sufficiently intense, people can look at enemies of their country as friends.”
Grant pointed out China’s influence in holding up the North Korean regime, explaining that the regime would likely fall if China removed economic support. Morrisey also noted that, while China should be more worried about North Korea’s nuclear weapons than the U.S. is, since the two share a border, China has made no effort to stop North Korean nuclearization.
“If the Chinese and North Korean regimes coordinate their strategies, a nuclearized North Korea might serve as a paralyzing factor in any substantial move against Chinese encroachments into the territorial waters of the maritime countries in the region,” Morrisey said.
Rather than being an anomaly, the amount of politics involved in this year’s Olympics represent “business as usual,” according to Morrisey.
“When most of the regimes involved are compatible, the games take on that purer, Avery Brundage air of wholesome athletic competition; when the regimes are incompatible, the political undercurrent becomes more obvious,” he said.
The Cold War, for example, was a highly-politicized time for the Olympics as both sides saw the games as a way to prove athletic prowess.
“The 1980 winter games in Lake Placid, NY were memorable precisely because the underrated U. S. hockey team defeated the powerful Soviet team in the semi-finals, before defeating Finland and winning the gold medal,” Morrisey said. “The other famous example was the 1936 games in Berlin, an occasion which Hitler intended as an exhibition of Aryan prowess, only to be frustrated by the victory of Jesse Owens in track.”
While politics can often become a focus during Olympics games, Carrington said the situation is actually more of “temporary alternate reality” in which people can express hope for things that are, in reality, very far from occurring.
“If you asked the people I knew from Korea, they would admit that they were nowhere close to an actual unified Korea,” Carrington said. “It was more that if all things could be perfect and equal, that’s what they would want, not that the Olympics or any gesture like that is somehow going to overcome the massive differences between the regimes and the very volatile history between them.”