I went to the Olympics and all I got was this tentative sense of hope

For two weeks, the Korean peninsula seemed to be unified.

I went to the Olympics and all I got was this tentative sense of hope

For two weeks, the Korean peninsula seemed to be unified.

Hye Lim, 29, and Sinae Ra, 30 are not exactly fans of cross-country skiing. Actually, they readily admitted that they didn’t even know what was going on in the competition in front of them last Thursday. They work as an office assistant and yoga instructor, respectively, in Seoul, and figured they had to come see something at the Olympics.

“I mean, it’s fun just to be here,” said Hye Lim, as mostly European fans wandered around an expensive but largely empty new Olympic facility. Some locals lined up at the snack bar, where the only credit card you can use to buy your hotel noodles is Visa, Official Sponsor of the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Games. “We’ll head home after this,” she said.

Fans with united Korea flags.

Fans with united Korea flags.

Like at many Winter Olympics events in South Korea, the seats that were filled that day seemed to be for friends and family members of the white people who were going to win most of the medals, as well as a smattering of curious day trippers from the capital two hours to the west. The experience felt wholesome if perhaps slightly over-sanitized by corporate planning, and also frequently unreal, as if you were lost and confused somewhere on the costly set of a TV show being made for spectators very far away. But Koreans were competing somewhere out there on the track that day, allowing for one of the unexpected real-life scenes that just might have made this Olympics different. A group of locals sat at the front, waving the white-and-blue unification flag that indicated they were supporting the athletes from both North and South Korea.

“We’re not sure, but we hope this can make some lasting difference. We just really don’t want war, and anything that helps is amazing,” said Sinae Ra. “Of course, we think North Korea’s government treats its citizens very badly, and the country should open up. But even though we didn’t expect to be, we’re cheering loudly for the North Korean athletes, too.”

If Pyeongchang 2018 has actually improved the chances of uniting a peninsula that has been bitterly divided since 1953 — and analysts say this is a real possibility, albeit a small one, considering ongoing U.S. strategy — that could make all the costs worthwhile for Koreans, and make this one of the unlikely Olympic success stories.

But the lasting political consequences of the Games are difficult to predict. Often, attempts at political propaganda fizzle out for local politicians. Other times, the Games bolster the hosting regimes. Or, the attention on all the pageantry can allow for entirely unexpected outcomes, like at the 1968 Games in Mexico City, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter race, raised their black-gloved fists in a show of black power while the national anthem was played.

“We’re not sure, but we hope this can make some lasting difference. We just really don’t want war, and anything that helps is amazing.”
Sinae Ra, a yoga teacher from South Korea

“That protest against what was going on in their home country [the U.S.] has become not just an iconic sports moment but an iconic world-historical moment,” Jules Boykoff, the author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, told me.

More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin successfully used the 2014 Sochi Olympics to shore up domestic political support, while Rio 2016 preceded a catastrophic collapse in that city's infrastructure and the near-complete evaporation of support for newly-installed President Michel Temer.

Like Mexico City 50 years ago, the Games this year took some unexpected turns. Just last month, North Korea signaled they wanted in. The new, center-left South Korean administration — installed less than a year ago, after President Park Geun-Hye was impeached in a bizarre scandal featuring a modern-day Rasputin figure — agreed, and successfully petitioned Washington to suspend the joint military exercises that Pyongyang considers a provocative rehearsal for invasion of their country. Seoul footed the $2.6 million bill for a convoy of choreographed cheerleaders and let North Korean athletes compete alongside (mostly more talented) South Korean teammates, leading to scenes of young Southern fans singing along with North Koreans while waving the united Korea flag.

Polls taken before the Games showed South Koreans split over President Moon Jae-in’s decision to let North Korea participate alongside their athletes. But around Pyeongchang, it was hard to find anyone admitting to being anything but excited about patriotic unity. And it seems impossible to find anyone willing to countenance, like President Trump does, that the possibility that war is an acceptable outcome.

“North Koreans are our brothers and sisters and our cousins, not our enemies, and I hope we can finally be re-united somehow,” said Jae Kim, a young mother who traveled from Seoul to watch women's hockey with her husband and daughter. Inside the rink, the DJ blasted American music from the 1990s — this was par for the course in Brazil, too — most notably Beck and Linkin Park. Jae continued, “Absolutely no one wants war, except for a handful of people in the United States, and of course weapons companies.”

Around Pyeongchang, it was hard to find anyone admitting to being anything but excited about patriotic unity.

Both Boykoff and Sangsoo Lee, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, told me that the most crucial upcoming variable for determining North-South relations will be the resumption of joint military exercises between South Korea and the U.S. The practice is scheduled to restart in April, which could easily enrage Pyongyang.

But in the more usual ways, Pyeongchang 2018 stuck to the global script. At the last Olympics in Rio, the total medal count closely tracked the list of world's largest economies as measured by GDP. At the Winter Olympics, which by its geographic nature excludes most of the global south, this pattern is even more exaggerated. All of the final top five countries in South Korea have a gross domestic product per capita higher than $44,000, putting them in the top 10 percent of the world's richest nations.

During the Closing Ceremony on Sunday, where the U.S. was represented by first daughter Ivanka Trump, Korean media reported that conflicts may have arisen between Northern and Southern athletes after the games, perhaps leading them to insist on using their own flags for the final march.

“The Olympics provided short-term crisis management, but I’m pessimistic about the situation afterwards,” said Lee, citing the U.S. “maximum pressure” strategy and the likely resumption of military exercises. “And when it comes to future Korean unification, there is a long way to go. I’m concerned about younger South Koreans who tend to have more negative views on North Korea” than older South Koreans.

But for many fans at Pyeongchang 2018, the Games were never going to resolve everything, and if they could only serve as an inflection point, that would be something.

“I didn’t think the decision to unify the teams was ideal, because they did it too late, and didn’t have enough time to practice together, and so they probably did worse as a result,” said Yang Dahye, a schoolteacher leading her students away from a match. “But there are more important things than winning at sports.”

Vincent Bevins is a journalist based in Jakarta. Additional reporting by Aaron Bauer and Hee-won Kwon.