[NOTEBOOK]Amid the cheers, tight controls

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[NOTEBOOK]Amid the cheers, tight controls

It was a reunified Korea. In Busan, North and South no longer existed as a separate nation. They were one. Local citizens shouted cheers and applauded for both the South and North Korean athletes when they appeared in the stadium. The unity here was as blazing as a furnace and as well mixed as a bowl of bibimbap.

The most popular sport during the 14th Asian Games is not soccer or baseball, but judo. At Gudeok Indoor Gymnasium, where the judo matches took place, the tickets sold out fast. Those who couldn't get tickets waited anxiously outside the stadium. The rising popularity of judo was triggered by the excellent performances of the South Korean team.

But it was also because the North Korean cheerleaders came to the judo matches. Perhaps there was a clear reason why the North officials have chosen this group of stunningly beautiful women as cheerleaders. But surely their alluring presence has helped narrow the gap between the two Koreas.

On Wednesday, the judo mats in Gudeok Gymnasium where four gold medals were given to judo competitors from the two Koreas was a party scene. Cheering squads and fans watching competitors from the two Koreas defeating their rivals were shouting for joy.

The members of the North Korean cheering squad called the names of the South Korean contestants, saying "Our athletes are doing well!"

"Our athletes?" One may have wondered. But at the gymnasium that day, there was no distinction between North Korean and South Korean. It was all "our athletes." Not only in judo, but in the weightlifting competition, the wrestling matches and soccer matches. All in the audience thought of the North Korean athletes as "our athletes."

The North Koreans are doing well in Busan, as if they were playing on their home field. One can see in the competitors' eyes an overwhelmed sense of pride because of the enthusiastic response they got from the local citizens.

During a news conference, they said, "We gained more energy by seeing our same ethnic people cheering for us."

The response from Busanites has been unexpected. There seemed to be a sense of deep affection in the eyes of locals who greeted the North Korean athletes, as if they were looking at their own brothers or close friends. A group of people stretched out their arms to hold hands with the North Korean athletes.

The attitude of the North Korean athletes is also different from what they showed two years ago during the Sydney Olympics. Perhaps in Busan they grew excited by the warm greetings they unexpectedly received from Busanites. But some members of the North Korean team passed a joke to South Korean reporters and the South's cheerleaders.

Amidst this peaceful atmosphere, however, there is also a great wall that divides the two Koreas. It is the Security Control Headquarters, made up of the National Intelligence Agency agents and the local police. The agents, often dressed in black suits, occupied the rows of seats next to the North's cheering squad. In the gymnasium where the judo matches took place, members of the unit surrounded the cheerleaders, blocking the way of South Korean reporters as well as spectators.

Yelling and tension rose in the stadium as curious reporters tried to approach the North's cheerleaders to ask questions. The North Koreans wanted to talk, but the agents blocked the way. Their control is tight, literally "man-to-man." They follow North Koreans even to the bathroom. Agents are assigned even to reporters of the Chosun Shinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan.

One North Korean athlete said angrily, "There is no freedom of action here." Perhaps one may be reminded that that is what we have been saying all these years about North Korea?

A country strengthens control when there is a lack of confidence. The guards were probably just following orders, but why did their superiors issue such orders? They might have thought it was for safety, but ordinary people saw it as control.

I hope the amicable atmosphere created in Busan will lead us further down the road to the reunification of our country.


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The writer is the sports editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Sohn Jang-hwan

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