Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

As Olympics open with dazzling spectacle, all eyes are on North Korea

VP Pence will be at the Opening Ceremonies, as will North Korean officials. But will they meet?

Fireworks explode behind the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018.
Fireworks explode behind the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018.Read moreAP Photo / David J. Phillip, Pool

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – It was a moment that may well define these Olympic Games: First came smiling athletes walking side by side under a flag of Korean unity. Then the air was filled with a well-known ballad of sorrow and separation.

And finally, the stadium was full of people standing and cheering Friday in what the Olympic hosts hope could stir a movement toward easing the hair-trigger tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula.

Every Olympics has its share of geopolitical back stories. But organizers of the Winter Games in Pyeongchang – which opened with a spectacle heavy with lore and symbols binding North and South Korea – have emphasized them heavily as a chance to find a new path for neighbors frozen in a Cold War-era standoff.

Yet obstacles were evident even amid the outreach. The top U.S. envoy to the Games, Vice President Pence, sat stone-faced as the crowd erupted in cheers for the unified Korean team – showing the rift between Washington and its South Korean ally on how to deal with the North's nuclear and military ambitions.

The cheering came when athletes from North and South Korea walked together into Friday's Opening Ceremonies under a single Korean flag in a rare display of unity.

The combined teams – dressed in white and introduced simply as "Korea" – entered the stadium under the blue-and-white "unification flag," which shows the peninsula as one. The Pyeongchang hosts cued up "Arirang," a poignant, centuries-old Korean folk song that is considered an unofficial national anthem.

Two hockey players – one from North Korea and another from the South – took the Olympic torch to South Korean figure skating superstar Yuna Kim to light the Olympic cauldron.

The Games are taking place just 50 miles from the border with North Korea. About 500 North Koreans, including 22 athletes, have traveled south for the Games, which will wrap up Feb. 25.

But Pence did not join the joyous welcome for Korean detente: He remained seated with his wife, Karen Pence, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while others in the VIP box rose to cheer on the Koreans.

Those on their feet included South Korean President Moon Jae-in and the two senior North Koreans sent to the opening ceremonies – Kim Yo Jong, the sister of leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, North Korea's nominal head of state.

The North Korean pair were seated almost directly behind the Pences, but there was no interaction between them.

Earlier, Pence did not sit down for dinner at the reception for dignitaries that Moon hosted before the opening, instead eating with the American athletes. But Pence did call in to the reception and greeted everyone at the top table – except Kim Yong Nam, according to a South Korean presidential spokesman.

Pence "did not come across" the North Koreans at the reception, a Pence spokesman said.

The vice president's deliberate snub to the North Koreans – and, by extension, the host country – highlighted the deep divisions between Washington and Seoul on how to deal with Pyongyang.

Moon promotes the Olympics as the "Peace Games" and hopes to use North Korea's participation as a springboard to better relations between the estranged neighbors – and perhaps to broader denuclearization talks.

Moon warmly greeted Kim Yo Jong at Friday's ceremony. He will host her and the other senior North Korean officials for lunch on Saturday.

Also in the North's delegation is Choe Hwi, a senior official blacklisted by the United Nations. Seoul had to seek a special U.N. exemption for Choe to spend three days in South Korea.

Choe and Kim Yo Jong also are under direct American sanctions for human rights abuses related to their roles in censoring information in North Korea.

In stark contrast to Moon's outreach, Pence called North Korea "the most tyrannical regime on the planet" earlier Friday, when he visited a memorial to 46 sailors who died when the Cheonan, a South Korean naval corvette, was sunk by a North Korean torpedo in 2010. Pence also heard from North Korean defectors.

Pence has been waging a campaign to stop Pyongyang from "hijacking" the Olympics with its charm offensive.

He attended the Cheonan memorial with Fred Warmbier, the father of student Otto Warmbier, who died last year shortly after North Korea sent him home in a coma following 17 months of detention for stealing a propaganda poster. Fred Warmbier also attended the Opening Ceremonies, although he did not sit in the VIP box.

South Korea's Moon, however, left no doubt about his aspirations for the Games.

"Had it not been for the Pyeongchang Olympics, some of us might not have had chance to be together in the same room," he said at the reception for VIPs before the Opening Ceremonies. Pence waited outside while Moon spoke because he was late, according to a spokesman for South Korea's presidential Blue House.

"However, what is more important than anything else is that we are all here together now; we can cheer for athletes together and talk about our future," Moon said. "We are here together and that alone will be a precious starting point for a step forward toward world peace."

Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee and a German who has spoken of his experience coming from a divided country, said that having a joint Korean team sent "a powerful message of peace to the world."

– – –

The 23rd edition of the Winter Games kicked off with the temperature sitting about freezing, and they could be the coldest Games ever held.

The South Korean organizers built a $60 million, 35,000-seat, pentagon-shaped temporary stadium especially for the Games, but it has no roof. This part of South Korea is known for its wind – so much so that it is the place where pollock fish, a local delicacy, is hung out on lines to dry in the freezing gusts.

Organizers handed out hot-packs for feet and hands, heated seat cushions, a blanket and a hat to those attending the opening. They also built shelters around the Games' venues.

The South Korean hosts spent about $13 billion on their Olympic effort. Almost 2,500 athletes from 93 countries will compete in 102 medal events across 15 sports.

The Games were unveiled with a dazzling display titled "Peace in Motion."

Five children from Gangwon, the host province of the Games, represented the five Olympic rings and the five elements – fire, water, wood, metal and earth – that are believed to make up the universe.

They were led back in time by a White Tiger, taken on an adventure involving the creation myth of Korea. The stadium was illuminated with the chart of the constellations in the sky. The tiger was transformed into the Paektu mountain range, which runs from Mount Paektu in the north of North Korea to Mount Jiri in the south of South Korea.

Continuing their journey, the children arrived at a glittering gate, a gate to the future, symbolizing South Korea's transformation into a high-tech powerhouse. Then, 1,000 residents of Gangwon province entered the stadium, holding candles in white cups and standing in formation to make a dove of peace.

The candles have particular significance in modern-day South Korea. Moon, the president, was elected after hundreds of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets for weeks on end, holding candlelight vigils to protest the previous president. That president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached and is now detained while on trial on bribery charges.

– – –

Along with the diplomatic problems, there were added headaches for the organizers.

An outbreak of norovirus led to the quarantining of large numbers of staff in the days before the Games' opening. The number of people infected with the contagious vomiting and diarrhea bug had risen to 128 at latest count, with cases reported at three sites.

But health officials were very prepared in one area. About 110,000 condoms – a Winter Olympics record – are being distributed to athletes in Pyeongchang. That works out to about 37 condoms per athlete.

There was also bad news for Russian athletes just hours before the opening of the games. The Court of Arbitration for Sport denied a last-minute appeal filed by 45 Russian athletes who were hoping for an 11th-hour invitation to the Games.

– – –

The Washington Post's Ashley Parker in Pyeongchang and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.