PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – And now: sports.
After a weekend in which a fusillade of can’t-believe-it political surprises got the world talking about Olympic-flavored international relations rather than just the thrill of victory, the 2018 Winter Games settled Sunday into what everyone came here for. At least for the moment.
In some families, they talk sports to avoid talking politics. But the two have lots in common. Both take place in arenas, actual or metaphorical. Both are, arguably, expressions of human conflict turned into competitive games with specific rules. And both are most exhilarating when they operate at the very edge of precedent.
In that respect, this was an Olympic-grade weekend of politics in Pyeongchang when it came to North Korea and South Korea, and by extension when it came to North Korea and the world. The two Koreas glad-handed and edged closer as the world watched. The United States appeared to be the odd man out, and perhaps was.
And while it’s too early to suggest that the tectonic plates of Korean Peninsula security have shifted, surely the inaugural weekend of the Pyeongchang Winter Games has already secured its spot in Olympic lore simply for its visuals. There were North and South, side by side in the opening ceremony, on the hockey ice and in the dignitaries’ box, with the U.S. looking on like a kid who didn’t get picked in the sandlot.
What happened here, exactly? Let’s review five things we know now that we didn’t know before this first Olympic weekend began.
Kim Jong Un’s sister is now an international political player
Korea watchers knew of Kim Yo Jong, generally, before this, and she had been rising in the hierarchy in the years since her brother took power upon the death of their father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. She was in favor, unlike her brother Kim Jong Nam, who was taken out by suspected assassins at a Malaysia airport counter last year.
But the decision to send her to the South as the face of the regime for the first Korean Olympics since 1988 was noteworthy both for her and for the audience that the move was intended to reach. Kim Yong Nam, the expected main envoy and a 90-year-old figurehead with almost no real power beyond his head of state title, was shunted to the side as the 30-year-old Kim Yo Jong glided into the spotlight.
To the proceedings she brought youth and a level of glamour, yes, but something more substantive, too: Not only was she an unimpeachable representative of the Kim dynasty as the big man’s little sister, but her obvious poise and comfort in the public eye interrupts the cliched “hermit kingdom” narrative that the West often slathers onto North Korea. That’s a potent accomplishment in itself.
The president of South Korea made progress in his main objective
Moon Jae-in’s job is not easy. He replaced a hard-liner who was tossed from office after a massive public uprising. He advocates substantive engagement with the North – a stance that not only has significant opposition at home but requires him to dance delicately around U.S. President Donald Trump, who has at times turned his nation’s serious concerns about North Korea’s nuclear intentions into a sport of personally baiting his North Korea counterpart.
Like him or hate him, though, it’s hard to come out of this weekend concluding that Moon didn’t make progress. There he was with the delegation from the North at the opening ceremony, at a luncheon in Seoul, at a hockey game watching a joint Koreas team take the ice. And there he was with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at short track speedskating, all smiles and handshakes.
At the Olympics that have such high stakes for his country, Moon is playing a delicate game of poker. On this hand, he seems to be raking in the chips.
Once again, the Olympics are about more than athletics
Despite the similarity in spelling, Pyeongchang is not Pyongyang. But one might be forgiven for concluding that given how the North Koreans stole the opening show with a deft hand clad in an unexpectedly velvet glove.
While Olympics have always included politics, or political events have at least popped up, Pyeongchang is unprecedented in the way it became a full-tilt platform for developments in international relations during its opening days.
This shouldn’t be unexpected. Sure, the International Olympic Committee – acting in its own interests – casts the Games as a respite from real-world machinations. But anytime you’re getting a huge bunch of nations together for a festival of patriotism, adrenaline and bravado, you should expect some boundary-jumping into the messiness and delicate nature of humanity’s non-Olympic pursuits.
North Korea is not merely some bizarre ‘other’
There’s a trope, at least in the United States, that North Koreans are one step shy of being extraterrestrials. This is not the case. They live under very different, sometimes intolerable conditions, but they are, in fact, fellow people. Not robotic. Smiles. Fears. Laughter. Humanity.
Over coming days, the world will spend time watching the joint Korean women’s hockey team. As it does, it might consider a question: Looking at the players, without checking the roster, can you actually tell North from South? Watch the faces, the abilities, the determination. And remember what so many people who have lived under repression say: In any country, there is the government, and there are the people.
The United States didn’t win the optics war this weekend
No matter how you slice it, from the Asia perspective the Americans did not come out on top in the race to seize the narrative. This despite Pence’s emphatic pledge to make sure the Olympics didn’t turn into too much of a North Korea-sympathizing lovefest.
It wasn’t just the indelible visual of Pence in the opening ceremony box, stone-faced, sitting in front of Kim’s sister and looking awkward. Most of the indelible images from the early moments of the Games, the ones already written in history’s ink, involve North and South getting along, the North engaging in front of the world’s cameras, and Pence – and thus Washington – a supporting player at best.
What does the White House make of the mini (thus far) North-South thaw? Your move, Mr. Trump.
So sports, then. Already figure skating and speedskating are in full swing. Alpine and snowboarding are just gearing up. People from the community of nations will extend themselves, surprise themselves, disappoint themselves, outdo themselves, beat themselves up for their failures or find a way to blame others. All the great and messy things about being human.
Sort of like their counterparts in that other arena, the political one, except without the possibility of all-out war at the end of the run.
And those things at the very edge of precedent, that almost never happen? Those are pushed out to the rinks, the mountainsides and the halfpipes for right now. Where they’ll be in two days, a week or at the closing ceremony of Pyeongchang 2018 – in the arenas of competition or outside them – is anybody’s guess.
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