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International relations

South Koreans divided over Moon's push for unified Olympic team

President's younger supporters critical of top-down decision

North Korea's all-female cheerleading squad likely will be sent to Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics.   © Kyodo

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in has encountered an unexpected backlash against his effort to ease tensions on the peninsula through the upcoming Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Pyongyang and Seoul agreed Wednesday to form a combined women's ice hockey team. But the move angered Moon's opponents and supporters alike over what they call heavy-handed tactics and concern that North Korea will use the games for self-promotion.

You can't skate with us

Nearly 30,000 messages opposing the joint team filled the presidential Blue House website over the past few days, urging Moon not to use sports for politics and expressing sympathy for players.

A unified team likely would mean less time on the ice for some South Korean players, for whom the Olympics is the ultimate stage without the presence of a professional league. Support for players whose dreams may be cut short just one month before the games has spread in South Korea, especially among other young people.

Others are angered by Moon's lack of communication with citizens, a top priority for the new government. The Blue House has ignored opposition voices and made arrangements with the North without prior explanation to players.

Today's South Korean youth are more concerned with personal happiness and rights than north-south reconciliation. Moon visited the women's ice hockey players Wednesday to emphasize that a unified team would be historic, but the message failed to resonate with young South Koreans who may have taken the statement to mean that the administration is willing to sacrifice individuals for the sake of a larger cause.

Responding to public opinion, a Blue House official said Thursday the administration acknowledges the criticism that the unified team's creation was unfair and that it is working to minimize the impact on players.

'Pyongyang Olympics'

North Korea's roughly 500-member Olympic delegation likely will include an all-female cheerleading squad as well as artistic performers to play in Seoul and Gangneung, a city near Pyeongchang.

"We are turning the Pyeongchang Olympics that we've got into the Pyongyang Olympics," said Hong Joon-pyo, leader of South Korea's main conservative opposition party, the Liberty Korea Party.

Choo Mi-ae, who chairs the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, fired back by accusing conservative opposition parties of impeding the Olympics with propaganda.

The estranged Koreas agreed Wednesday to parade together at the opening ceremony under a "unification flag," which depicts the Korean Peninsula in blue against a white background. But South Koreans have been unreceptive to the idea, with more people supporting separate flags, local research firm Realmeter said.

Moon's rush to ease north-south tensions exposed a rift between the administration and public opinion that extends even to his young political base. The unification flag was supported only by those in their 40s, drawing opposition from typically conservative seniors as well as youth, who tend to value consensus decision making.

The two countries have marched as one in the past without trouble, but Pyongyang's accelerated development of its missile and nuclear programs has intensified tensions on the peninsula.

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