Politics casting an inevitable shadow over Winter Olympics

Sports and stories a kind of front for diplomatic shadow dance in the background

North Korean cheerleaders await the start of the opening ceremony at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

North Korean cheerleaders await the start of the opening ceremony at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

 

The Winter Games have always been the fun division of the sprawling, troubled Olympic movement.

But before a snowball has been thrown in earnest in South Korea, it’s hard to see past the appropriation of the Pyeongchang games as a stage between the two most famous haircuts on the failing planet Earth.

Some part of the instinctive huckster in Donald Trump must have acknowledged the adroitness of the past few days of international diplomacy on the part of his nuclear-power nemesis Kim Jong-un.

There was ‘Little Rocket Man’ on Thursday, be-coated and wearing a Dean Martin trilby, out on his balcony, sated by the full might of North Korea’s military display in Pyongyang on the eve of the Winter Olympic opening ceremony. It was one of those vast, extravagant and vaguely insane throwbacks to the Iron Curtain shows of choreographed military pageantry.

At the same time, Kim Yo-jong, his sister, was preparing to travel across the border to become the first member of the family to set foot on South Korean territory since 1950. North Korea has sent state representatives to the winter games, it has sent athletes – the hockey team will be comprised of Koreans from north and south – and has also sent its cheerleading squad, the state-sanctioned glamour department of the regime and a big draw south of the divide.

While all of this was going on, the best that president Trump could muster was a tweet advertising that he would be meeting Henry Kissinger, the puppeteer of American international diplomacy and chicanery in the 1970s, sometime on Thursday. He must be seething at being outmanoeuvred like this – and being out of the spotlight.

Kissinger is 94-years-old now but, it would seem, is still sharp as a blade. It’s highly probable that the Donald voiced his vexation at North Korean’s impudence and nuclear intentions and debated how he – America – might best respond without losing face or causing a third world war.

Maybe there was time in that meeting for Kissinger to deliver a quick lecture on the recent history of Korea; to explain that precisely during the same time the Donald’s grandfather was emigrating to his USA and in the years when his father was amassing a fortune as a slum landlord, millions of Koreans were experiencing all the shit that the world can possibly throw at one country.

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Unified inter-Korean team with flag bearers Chung Gum Hwang and Yunjong Won walked out during the opening ceremony. Photo: Christian Bruna/EPA
Unified inter-Korean team with flag bearers Chung Gum Hwang and Yunjong Won walked out during the opening ceremony. Photo: Christian Bruna/EPA

Occupied by the Japanese in the first part of the last century, mass deaths in labour camps became the future for hundreds of thousands of Korean men and sexual slavery the lot for women. Their language and cultural traditions were suppressed by the occupiers. Conscription was invoked to aid the futile Japanese war effort by 1944. Amidst the global carnage and the task of rebuilding Europe post-1945, sorting out Korea was small beer for the victors but nonetheless, the randomness with which the future lives of millions of people was decided upon remains mind-boggling.

Dividing line

Worried that the Russians would simply occupy all of Korea, the Americans hurriedly settled upon the 38th parallel as a suitable dividing line; they assumed responsibility for everywhere south and the Russians oversaw the north with a vague plan to reunify the country.

The plan went dismally unfulfilled as political ambitions and ideologies hardened on both sides of the parallel, independent republics were declared and the North disappeared into its strange, solitary existence of totalitarianism and secrecy and the heightened paranoia which ensures the idea of unification – the very theme of these Winter Games – is further away than ever.

So maybe Kissinger issued a brief lecture for the Donald on how unimaginably difficult life turned for those millions of Koreans who happened to be living north of the 38th parallel in 1945 and how grim it has remained for their kids and grandkids.

For Trump, North Korea is reducible to a mere battle of egos and will against an uppity foe and although he has sent vice president Mike Pence as the US representative to the Olympics, the mood behind the photo opportunities and the pageantry of Friday’s opening extravaganza remains frosty. Easy, then, for secretary of state ,Rex Tillerson, to bluster his warning towards Pyongyang.

“Until you do something meaningful, sending some athletes and an orchestra down to South Korea to show you can play sport and enjoy music doesn’t mean a thing,” he said.

The opening ceremony hadn’t even concluded when the news wires reported that Pence had skipped out on the official dinner, a gesture internationally interpreted as a snub to Kim Yong-nam, the ceremonial head of North Korea. Yet there Pence sat, just a few feet away from North Korean delegation, all of them watching the children dancing and the fake giant white tiger and the drummers and music all promoting the Olympic aspirations of peace and harmony.

No diplomatic intervention could have brought about this gathering for a straightforward international meeting but having to show up for this harmless charade – having the excuse that their snowboarders and curlers needed them in this hour – made it possible.

The preposterous earnestness of Olympic ceremonies make them easy to mock but the sight of the Korean athletes walking in together in Pyeongchang and the presence of the North Korean delegates in that stadium must have been a hair-raising moment for the host country.

Korea had been one entity for an entire millennium and its sundering came down to the heavy-handed patriarchy with which the Western powers made decisions for Asian nations and then left them to deal with the blood and mayhem and misery afterwards.

Big jamborees

As strenuously as the Olympic movement declares itself independent of politics, the troubles of the world inevitably visit its big jamborees, from Berlin in 1936 to Mexico and Munich. Friday’s parade and the attendant show of unity was nothing more than a mirage; a fleeting vision of what might have been achieved had the liberation of the country been handled with a bit more care by the Russians and Americans some 70-plus years ago.

For all of the fun and bravery and brilliant weirdness of the Winter Olympics over the next fortnight, the sports and the stories feel as if they are a kind of front for the diplomatic shadow dance in the back ground. In the medal race, it will be business as usual for the superpowers; their best and brightest will duke it out on the hockey rinks and on the ski ramp for the medals to boost their sense of prestige and abundant health and youthfulness.

The flags will be raised and the anthems played. North Korea won’t feature in that race. But across the 38th parallel, the small dangerous man in the trilby will be pleased that his cause and country has already received so much air time and conversation at Korea’s Olympics – and that Seoul is footing the $12 billion bill.

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