Sports minister to head Korea's delegation to Beijing Olympics
Seoul's Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism Hwang Hee will head the South Korean government delegation to the Beijing Olympics which kicks off next week, despite a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games by the United States and some of its allies.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced Tuesday that Hwang will attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Games, which runs from Feb. 4 to 20, and support South Korean athletes.
The government said it made the decision on its official delegation taking into consideration Korea's role as the host country of the preceding 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the significance of the Games, bilateral relations with China and the Covid-19 situation.
Last month, the United States and several of its key allies including Australia, Britain, Canada and Japan announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, in protest of China's human rights issues. This meant that although these countries' government officials will not attend the Games, their athletes may still compete.
Hwang will attend instead of President Moon Jae-in as a top Cabinet official and is expected to depart for China on Feb. 3.
China sent a deputy prime minister-level official to attend the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Olympics in February 2018. There had been much speculation on who will helm Korea's delegation amid the Sino-U.S. rivalry, and other figures mentioned included Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae, who doubles as deputy prime minister for social affairs.
The Sports Ministry said that Hwang plans to root for the Korean Olympic delegation, watch matches and provide on-site support so that athletes can safely take part in the sporting events.
He also is expected to engage in sports diplomacy and meet with Olympic officials to request support for Korea's successful hosting of the 2024 Winter Youth Olympics to be held in Gangwon.
Korea will also be sending its third-largest athletic delegation to the Winter Games, with a total of 63 athletes competing in six sports in the Beijing Olympics. It will also have will also have 61 supporting officials and staffers — including five for Covid-19 response — accompanying the athletes.
Previously, 146 athletes took part in the South Korea-hosted 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games and 71 athletes for the 2014 Sochi Olympics in Russia.
A ceremony to launch the South Korean national team was held the same day at the Olympic Hall in Songpa District, southern Seoul, attended by athletes and officials including Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum, Sports Minister Hwang and Lee Kee-heung, head of the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee (KSOC). Presidential candidates Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party and Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party also attended.
On Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter congratulating President Moon on his 70th birthday, according to the Blue House.
Moon sent a response letter expressing gratitude to Xi, and they agreed to further develop bilateral ties. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Korea and China establishing diplomatic ties.
The two sides are reportedly discussing a virtual summit, though it is not likely to take place before the Olympics. Moon visited China in 2017 and 2019, but Xi has yet to reciprocate a visit to Seoul due to the pandemic.
The Moon administration had considered the Beijing Olympics to be a possible venue to bring together key players to revive diplomacy with North Korea, but that idea fizzled amid the U.S. diplomatic boycott and the pandemic situation.
North Korea sent a letter at the beginning of the month informing China that it would not participate in the Beijing Olympics because of the pandemic and moves by "hostile forces," in a jab at the United States. Pyongyang expressed its support for a successful Olympic opening and described the U.S. diplomatic boycott as an "insult to the spirit of the international Olympic Charter" and an attempt to "disgrace the international image of China."
Separately, National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug will also visit Beijing from Feb. 3 to 6 to support the South Korean Olympic team and attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Games.
The National Assembly said Tuesday that Park will also meet with Li Zhanshu, chairman of the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, to discuss ways to expand bilateral parliamentary exchanges. Park was invited to visit Beijing by Li in a virtual meeting in 2020 and will be the first top-level foreign dignitary to be received by the Chinese National People's Congress since the outbreak of the pandemic.
He is also scheduled to attend a luncheon for foreign dignitaries hosted by President Xi and to meet with Korean residents in China.
The Winter Games will only be open to invited local spectators, and tickets won't be sold to the general public. It will be a scaled down event compared to the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
It will be attended by some 2,900 athletes from 91 countries, competing for a total of 109 gold medals in 15 disciplines across seven sports. Korea is vying for two gold medals and a top-15 finish.
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]