‘Why not with North Koreans?’The 17 year-old girl innocently asked, “We exchange greetings with athletes from other countries. Why not with North Koreans?” Gymnast Lee Eun-ju asked the reporters when the selfie she took with North Korean gymnast Hong Un-jong made headlines.
I would say, there’s nothing wrong with it. Lee aspired to become a gymnast when 27-year-old Hong won a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. To Lee, Hong is not a rival from North Korea but a respected senior in the field. Lee wanted to take a photo with an idol from her childhood. IOC President Thomas Bach called the selfie a “great gesture.”
But in reality, there are so many things we cannot do with North Korea. The unified team for both Koreas or a joint entrance in the opening ceremony — which had always been considered — were not discussed for the Rio Olympic Games because of the inter-Korean deadlock. The last time South and North Korean athletes appeared together at the opening ceremony with the Korean Peninsula flag was at the 2006 Torino Winter Olympics.
Lee said, “I think not all South and North Koreans are on bad terms.” But leaders on both sides think otherwise. Upon instantly cooling inter-Korean relations with the fourth nuclear experiment in January, Kim Jong-un said on August 13, “The only thing we can trust is our own power.” President Park’s 6,709-word speech for the Liberation Day did not include a single word on proposing a talk with North Korea.
Meanwhile, South and North Korea are having completely different Olympic experiences. North Korean athletes gushed out brainwashed remarks. Weight lifter Eom Yun-chol said, “I have nothing to say because I didn’t win a gold medal.” Kim Song-kuk, who won a bronze in pistol shooting, also said that only a gold medal is important. Weight lifter Rim Jong-sim said, “When the gold was finalized, I thought I brought joy to Kim Jong-un.”
But South Koreans are no longer obsessed with gold. The JoongAng Ilbo’s youth report on August 17 asked readers what they expect of the Olympians, and 47 percent said, “Enjoying the sports.” Only 9 percent said, “Winning a gold medal.” South and North Koreans are growing more and more apart.
Nevertheless, it is the power of the Olympics to remind us that the two Koreas are one, just as Lee’s selfie has shown. The Rio Olympic Games will end on Sunday, August 21. Now, we need to make a difference for the PyeongChang Winter Games in 2018. Hopefully, by that time, the selfies of South and North Korean athletes would be so commonplace that they won’t make news at all.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 19, Page 31
*The author is a political news reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.