Pyeongchang Olympics end as they started – mired in politics


Associated Press

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea

The overtly political 2018 Winter Olympics closed tonight very much as they began, with humanity’s finest athletes marching exuberantly across the world stage as three nations with decades of war and suspicion among them shared a VIP box — and a potential path away from conflict.

Senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. presidential adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump sat in two rows of seats behind the Olympic rings, meant to represent a competition of peace and international unity. In close proximity — though with no apparent communication between Trump and Kim — they watched a spirited, elaborate show that concluded the Pyeongchang Games.

Even as dancers performed cultural stories to music before a huge crowd, South Korea’s presidential office released a brief statement saying that Pyongyang had expressed willingness to hold talks with Washington.

The North has “ample intentions of holding talks with the United States,” according to the office. The North’s delegation also agreed that “South-North relations and U.S.-North Korean relations should be improved together,” Moon’s office, known as the Blue House, said.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, just before declaring the games closed, addressed the two Koreas’ cooperation at the closing ceremony, saying, “The Olympic games are an homage to the past and an act of faith for the future.”

“With your joint march you have shared your faith in a peaceful future with all of us,” Bach said. “You have shown our sport brings people together in our very fragile world. You have shown how sport builds bridges.”

It was all an extraordinary bookend to an extraordinary Olympics that featured athletic excellence, surprises and unexpected lurches forward toward a new detente on the Korean Peninsula. Thrilled athletes marched into the arena around the world’s flags, relaxed after showing their athletic best to themselves and to the world.

“We have been through a lot so that we could blaze a trail,” said Kim Eun-jung, skip of the South Korean women’s curling team, which captured global renown as the “Garlic Girls” — all from a garlic-producing Korean hometown. They made a good run for gold before finishing with runner-up silver.

That these games would be circumscribed by politics was a given from the outset because of regional rivalries. North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China are neighbors with deep, sometimes twisted histories that get along uneasily with each other in this particular geographic cul-de-sac.

But there was something more this time around. Hanging over the entire games was the saga — or opportunity, if you prefer — of a delicate diplomatic dance between the Koreas, North and South, riven by bloodshed and discord and an armed border for the better part of a century.

The games started with a last-minute flurry of agreements to bring North Koreans to South Korea to compete under one combined Koreas banner. Perish the thought, some said, but Moon’s government stayed the course. By the opening ceremony, a march of North and South into the Olympic Stadium was watched by the world — and by dozens of North Korean cheerleaders applauding in calibrated synchronicity.

Also watching was an equally extraordinary, if motley, crew. Deployed in a VIP box together were Moon, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s envoy sister, Kim Yo Jong. The latter two, at loggerheads over North Korea’s nuclear program, didn’t speak, and the world watched the awkwardness.

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