The PyeongChang Winter Olympics starts its 17-day run with an opening ceremony Friday, with Koreans -- traditionally enthusiastic supporters of the Olympic movement -- and world citizens anticipating exciting events to be played out by top athletes on the ice and snow.
As the quadrennial event raises its curtain, many Koreans -- especially residents of PyeongChang and Gangneung, the two host cities, would recall the joyful moments seven years ago of winning the right to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. The feat was even more blissful because it came after two unsuccessful bids for the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.
The PyeongChang Olympics will be the largest-ever Winter Games, drawing 2,925 participants from 92 countries, compared with the 2,858 athletes from 88 countries who attended the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Large events like the Olympics cannot proceed without any impediments. PyeongChang underwent some difficulties, the most recent of them being security concerns stemming from the North Korean nuclear and missile crisis. The North’s last-minute participation all but cleared any lingering dark clouds over the event.
Koreans may well take pride in hosting successfully one of the world’s oldest, largest international sporting events for the second time, after the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Korea is only the eighth country in the world to have organized both the Summer and Winter Games.
The 1988 Seoul Olympics, while providing a stage for the world’s top-talented athletes, left a positive geopolitical impact as it was free from the politically-motivated boycotts that marred the previous two Summer Olympics: The US boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in retaliation for the then Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, to which Moscow hit back by shunning the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Moreover, the participation of the then Soviet-bloc countries like the Soviet Union, East Germany and Romania and China helped ease Cold War confrontations. It laid the ground for then South Korean President Roh Tae-woo’s “Nordpolitik” which culminated in the establishment of official ties with both China and Russia in the following years.
Now 30 years later, geopolitics is playing a part in the PyeongChang Olympics as well. This time, the biggest factor is the participation of North Korea, which rejected its invitation to the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
There will be 22 North Korean athletes competing in five sports, including 12 women’s hockey players who have formed a single team with South Korean players.
The reconciliatory atmosphere between the two Koreas will figure more prominently when the South Korean and North Korean delegates march together under the Korean Unification Flag at the opening ceremony. In addition, hundreds of more North Koreans -- members of an art troupe, cheering squad, taekwondo demonstration team and journalists -- have come down to celebrate the Olympics. President Moon Jae-in is also expected to receive a high-powered North Korean government delegation headed by Kim Yong-nam, its nominal head of state, and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of the North Korean leader.
The reconciliatory mood that comes on the heels of the North Korean nuclear and missile crisis is the consequence of Moon’s efforts to seize on the thaw in inter-Korean relations to bring Pyongyang to the negotiation table with Seoul and Washington and the North’s propaganda tactic to tide over the harsh international sanctions and promote a peace message.
Not all have a positive view of the North’s large-scale presence in the Olympics. There are some grounds for concern of conservative South Koreans and US officials about the possibility of the latest developments causing cracks in the international alliance against the North’s nuclear and missile ambitions.
Nevertheless, we hope that politics do not stand in the way of the proceedings of the Olympics at least and that the peace momentum could lead to a more meaningful development.
Most of all, you should be ready to cheer for all the participants -- winners and losers -- while enjoying all the exciting and emotional moments the world’s most-talented athletes will provide over the coming 17 days.