South Korean protesters object to Olympic Games deal with North Korea

South Koreans burn a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in front of the Seoul railway station on Jan. 22, 2018. They were protesting a visit by Hyon Song Wol, head of North Korea's art troupe.
South Koreans burn a portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in front of the Seoul railway station on Jan. 22, 2018. They were protesting a visit by Hyon Song Wol, head of North Korea’s art troupe.
(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

International Olympics officials may have blessed North Korea’s role in the upcoming Winter Games, but not everyone in host nation South Korea supports Pyongyang coming to Pyeongchang.

Discontent has grown in South Korea in recent days over plans to include North Korea in high-profile roles during next month’s Games — complaints that prompted protesters on Monday to burn a North Korean flag and an image of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, in public.

“We oppose!” the group of a few hundred people chanted Monday outside Seoul’s central train station. “We oppose!”


The protest is a vocal example of what appears to be a growing backlash in the South, prompting President Moon Jae-in to urge public support for the Olympics deal and its promise of decreased tensions on the peninsula.

The president, a former special forces soldier for South Korea whose parents fled North Korea during the war, urged his nation to support the “miraculously earned” chance for cooperation between the two countries.

“Such dialogue came dramatically while the possibility of war again loomed,” he said Monday. “But the current condition is so fragile that no one can be optimistic about how long the dialogue will last.”

Moon is a progressive who came to office seeking better relations with the North. But he has walked a fine line in recent weeks, seeking a deal with the North while also maintaining a tough denuclearization stance in solidarity with the United States, a key ally.

Tension persists in part because of the North’s illicit and aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in recent years and its long history of reverting to a confrontational posture after obtaining concessions through inter-Korean dialogue.

The South Korean opposition’s complaints have centered on plans for the two nations — divided for more than six decades after the Korean War — to march together under a neutral unification flag and to field a joint women’s hockey team.


The North, which hasn’t attended a Winter Olympics since 2010, had no official role in the 2018 Games before this month. But a public overture by Kim on New Year’s Day and a receptive response by Moon led to successful negotiations in recent weeks.

The North is now expected to send dozens of athletes, coaches and journalists to the Games, which begin Feb. 9 in the ski village of Pyeongchang, about 100 miles east of Seoul. The International Olympic Committee took what it said was an “extraordinary” step of adding competition spots for the North over the weekend.

“The Olympic Winter Games Pyeongchang 2018 are hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean peninsula, and inviting the world to join in a celebration of hope,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Saturday after announcing the plan.

The North is expected to compete in three sports: hockey, skiing and skating.

The North also plans to send a 140-musician orchestra for live performances and a 230-woman cheering squad for the sporting events, part of a charm offensive aimed at presenting a positive image of the North on the international stage.

So far the effort — and the Moon government’s eagerness to build momentum toward improving inter-Korean relations — rings hollow for many in the South, despite international sentiment highlighting the symbolism.

“We have seen this so many times before,” said Bong Young-shik, a visiting research fellow at Yonsei University in Seoul, referring to talk of Korean solidarity. “Nothing lasted.”

The protesters on Monday said they weren’t pleased with the deference shown the North over the Games. Some said they believe the combined hockey team was unfair to South Korean athletes, who have trained hard only to be asked to compete with new teammates.

The situation intensified as the North sent a team to inspect event facilities on Sunday and Monday.

Stiles is a special correspondent.