February 7, 2018 3:30 pm JST

North Korea's Olympians skate cautiously into the spotlight

Hastily assembled united hockey team sparks intense scrutiny -- and mixed feelings

KENICHI YAMADA, Nikkei staff writer

North Korean ice hockey players arrive at the South Korean national training center in Jincheon on Jan. 25. © Reuters

SEOUL -- A week before the opening ceremonies, a huge North Korean flag -- about as high as a three-story building -- was hoisted in the Olympic Village in Gangneung to welcome the country's athletes and officials. It was a rare sight in South Korea, since flying the red, blue and white flag is legally banned in the country. And the gesture attracted fierce criticism in some quarters, reinforcing a conservative narrative that the Olympics have become a "Pyongyang Games" for North Korea.

South Korean media have been covering every move of the 22 North Korean athletes since they entered the country. For their part, North Korean reporters film the local media with Sony cameras held up by shoulder straps made by Samsung Electronics.

The local press has obsessed over every detail about the North Korean delegation. Their skaters are using U.S.-made skates that are so old that they need constant care and cleaning, press reports have noted. TV viewers rarely hear athletes from the North speak, but one exception was pair skater Ryom Tae Ok. Asked about her diet, she said with a smile: "I mainly eat vegetables to manage my weight."

Meals prepared by the South Korean side appeared to surprise the 12 female ice hockey players, who ate lightly as onlookers watched every movement. The players' caution was seen as fear that they would appear to be enjoying tasty meals unavailable in North Korea.

North Korea initially agreed with the International Olympic Committee to send a delegation of 46 members. But Pyongyang's dispatch of more members has led to speculation that two "coaches" are actually officials of the North Korean State Security Department sent to keep tabs on athletes.

Such intense scrutiny has deepened a sense among South Koreans that their neighbors in the North are very different, almost alien.

The unified Korean women's ice hockey team faces off against Sweden in a friendly match in Incheon, South Korea, on Feb. 4. © Getty Images

"I don't oppose North Korea's participation, but I still see it as an eerie country without a sense of propriety," a 21-year-old female university student said at Seoul Station. "I don't feel excited about [the Olympics]. It's enough to watch them on TV."

One would expect most South Koreans to be happy about hosting the country's first Olympics since the Seoul Summer Games in 1988. But they have mixed feelings.

At the opening ceremony, the joint team will march together under a "unification flag," demonstrating South Korean President Moon Jae-in's policy of reconciliation between South and North Korea to the world. But the joint team has been anything but unifying for South Koreans, with the North's participation in the Olympics fueling what some label the "South Korean disease" -- the sharp political confrontation between the conservative and reformist camps. Conservative groups hold gatherings at Seoul Station to criticize the Moon administration, showing a banner saying, "We oppose an Olympics without the national flag of South Korea" -- a reference to the unification flag.

Also drawing fire from conservative critics was the government's decision to distribute a notice calling for Olympic officials to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with honorifics such as "chairman, leader or high-ranking person" and members of the North Korean delegation as "teacher." Critics say these moves show the Moon administration is "going too far."

In contrast, reformist groups pursuing reconciliation established a cheering squad for the joint ice hockey team's practice match against Sweden. They have also undertaken a campaign to make "Peace Olympics" the most frequently searched word on the internet.

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