Hee K. Yoon left northern Korea as a young child in 1947, when his family fled south from the Communists. Seventy years later, Yoon’s homeland remains divided, and he sees reunification as only a distant hope.
Still, the sight of a joint Korean team at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang has heartened him with hope that perhaps the peninsula someday will live under one flag — just as the Korean athletes, north and south, marched into the Opening Ceremonies under one banner.
“Hopefully, this will be the first step. Confrontation is not a good thing,” Yoon said after lunch at a Korean restaurant in Allston.
Although Yoon, who has lived in the United States since 1973, said the unified Korean team could be a harbinger of dialogue between the bitter neighbors, he acknowledged that many Koreans are skeptical of what they see as a propaganda ploy by Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator.
“He has to find a way to survive and hang on for a few more years,” Yoon said.
That wariness, tinged with hope, was reflected over and over as Koreans in the Boston area began watching the Olympics unfold in a country that has become a flashpoint of global tension.
President Trump and Kim have traded schoolyard insults for months in an escalating war of words. Trump’s nickname of “Little Rocket Man” for Kim and the North Korean’s description of Trump as a “dotard” might be laughable, at best, if not for an underlying fear of miscalculation and nuclear conflict.
Against that backdrop, any peaceful communication between the Koreas is welcomed.
“We hope that this Olympics provides a momentum for a more enduring peace on the Korean peninsula,” said Yonghyon Kim, the South Korean consul-general in Boston. However, he added, “it’s up to North Korea.”
The North Korean presence at the Games is small: only 22 athletes, many of whom are part of the combined women’s ice hockey team. But Kim, the consul-general, said the initiative is important even if the motivation is rooted in self-image and propaganda. The dictator’s sister, for example, is attending the Games and is the first person in three generations of the ruling family to cross into the South.
“Some people are concerned and worried. I think that is also legitimate,” Kim said. “At the same time, whatever the North Koreans’ intentions may be, we need to make the best use of this window of opportunity to reduce tensions on the peninsula.”
Toward that end, Korean cooperation on the playing field is a positive, said Kay Dong, president of the Korean-American Citizens League of New England.
“Is it propaganda? Maybe, but maybe it’s more. Only he knows,” Dong said of Kim Jong-un. “It’s better than war, isn’t it?”
Dong, who graduated from Boston College in 1974, said she cried when she watched some of the first events of the Games.
“I became so emotional. I’ve been in America 47 years, but the roots in my head, being Korean, are there,” she said.
Myong Sool Chang, founder and editor of the Boston Korea newspaper, echoed that cautious sense of optimism.
“There has been so much tension about the North and a nuclear bomb, so I think this is a good chance to start talks between South and North,” Chang said. “We have to start from there. Eventually, the goal is non-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
The possibility of war is ingrained into the consciousness of South Koreans in a way that is incomprehensible to most Americans. Suyoung Kim, a 34-year-old living in Brookline, knows that mindset firsthand from his service as a South Korean military police officer in the demilitarized zone.
“We feel like war is always close, but at the same time we don’t feel it’s closer,” Kim said.
He sees North Korea’s participation in the Games as window dressing, or perhaps the result of a secret deal between the two countries.
“It’s a good step forward. But for some people in Korea, it’s just showing off,” Kim said. “There must have been some trade: If you send North Korean athletes, we’ll send you some money or rice. And the next time you have some kind of challenge, we’ll just accept whatever you want.”
Despite all the attention being paid to the unified team, these Olympics are not the first time that the countries have joined hands. They marched together at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, at Athens in 2004, and Turin in 2006.
Those displays of cooperation were unthinkable during the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. The North Koreans did not compete at those Games, which occurred less than a year after a terrorist attack organized by North Korean agents killed everyone aboard a South Korean airliner.
Emily Lee, a Boston University senior from Seoul, was not alive when the attack happened, but she has lived in the shadow of the enmity between the nations. The Koreas still have far to go, she said.
“Honestly, I don’t think it is a first step, but I think that people will talk about it,” Lee said of the joint team. And dialogue is a good thing.
“It can bring people together and forget about politics,” Lee said. “It will bring them together — for now.”Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.