The Game of New Horizons

The road leading up to the unified Korean delegation at the Winter Olympics.


Skylar Kleinman

Reporter Lakhsmi Chatterjee ’18 holding the Korean Unification Flag.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, took place during a time of increased tension between the world and North Korea. With tweetstorms from Trump, alleged testing of hydrogen bombs, missiles slightly missing Japan, and even threats against the U.S. territory of Guam, many fear a nuclear attack if diplomacy does not resolve the tension.

During the opening ceremony, however, North Korea feigned camaraderie. In a rare symbol of unity, the North and South Korean delegations marched under a white flag with a light blue (the same shade as the United Nations) outline of the Korean Peninsula. At their own Games, with a country with whom they are still technically at war, South Korea ditched their name for just ‘Korea.’  

This is a stark contrast from the first time South Korea hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. After Seoul’s selection as the host in 1981, North Korea sent complaints to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) demanding rights to co-host the event and have the opening and closing ceremonies in Pyongyang, where they even built their own stadium. The IOC rejected this but offered to hold six sporting events in North Korea. Unsatisfied with this, North Korea, along with the communist countries Cuba, Ethiopia, Albania and Seychelles boycotted the Olympics.

On November 29, 1987, Korean Air Flight 858 was bombed on its way to Seoul. All 104 passengers and eleven crew members on board died. Two North Korean agents were caught after they were found with fake Japanese passports in Bahrain, but the pair swallowed cyanide pills hidden in cigarettes while being attained in Bahrain. One survived and revealed that then-dictator Kim Jong Il personally ordered the two to bomb Flight 858 to scare others from attending the Olympics.

Thirty years later, relations between the two countries have not significantly improved. With added tensions between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, leading to U.S. sanctions against the country, the deployment of six nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortress bombers to Guam, and worldwide fear of a nuclear attack, the tension increased, and many were concerned about what North Korea might do during these new Games.

“A great example of this unifying power is the joint march here tonight of the two teams from the National Olympic Committees of the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We thank you.”

That was until the two countries met at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to talk on January 17, 2018. The next day, it was announced by the South Korean Ministry of Unification that North and South Korean athletes would march together at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony under a unified flag.The Korean Unification Flag features a light blue silhouette of the peninsula and bordering islands. The two countries have marched under the flag before, first at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan, and most recently used at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.

This agreement included North Korea sending 230 supporters, the creation of a joint Korean women’s national ice hockey team, and a suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military drills.

Preparations for the Opening Ceremony were watched by the world ever since. Crowds greeted North Korean athletes as they arrived in PyeongChang in boats. Joint-hockey team practices were speculated by those curious on how the two countries would get along. Their coach, Canadian Sarah Murray, expressed her dissent over the merger saying, “It is a tough situation to have our team be used for political reasons, but it’s kind of something that’s bigger than ourselves right now,” at a news conference after the North Korean players arrived. A week before the game, however, she changed her mind, saying, “The chemistry on the team is better than I could have ever predicted. They laugh together, they eat meals together, I’ll walk into the locker room and they’re all laughing together.”

At the opening ceremony, eyes were glued on Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, as she represented North Korea. Notably, they focused on how she did not even acknowledge U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s presence, mirroring North Korea’s resentment towards America and threats of nuclear war. However, when the United Korea team marched out at the end of the Parade of Nations, the stadium erupted in applause. Every leader present, along with most of the crowd, gave a standing ovation to the athletes, dressed in long white coats and holding the Korean Unification Flag.

After the Parade of Nations ended, IOC President Thomas Bach praised the two countries during his opening speech, stating, “A great example of this unifying power is the joint march here tonight of the two teams from the National Olympic Committees of the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We thank you.”

During, the games, the joint women’s hockey team lost every match, but formed friendships that no one thought would be possible. A North Korean speed skater tried to trip his Japanese opponent in competition and ended up falling himself. But their presence made more of a statement than anything else.

Once the Closing Ceremony came, the Korean delegation received another standing ovation. North and South Koreans alike were in tears over what they have done and hope for the future. The women’s hockey team, in particular, was in tears at the fact that they would have to separate and never speak to each other again. South Korean player Randi Heesoo Griffin wiped away tears as her friends got on a bus back to North Korea. As she said to Global News, “I think if we end up playing against each other again, South Korea versus North Korea, there’s definitely going to be some hugs and some smiles.”

IOC President Thomas Bach thanked the delegation once more, saying, “You have shown how sport brings people together in our fragile world; you have shown how sport builds bridges…Therefore I can truly say: the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 are the Games of New Horizons. We are embracing these new horizons. We offer our hand to everybody to join forces in this faith in the future.”