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Should I be nervous to travel to South Korea for the Olympics?

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A group of people posed on the Olympic rings in PyeongChang, South Korea on Thursday.

By Globe Staff 

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Are you nervous? Are you scared?

When I told people I would be traveling to South Korea as part of the Globe team covering the Winter Olympics, one or more of these questions was inevitable.

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The answer to the first one is a little. I had never been to Asia, and hadn’t been away from my family for an extended time, so there was naturally a bit of concern.

But outright scared? The answer is no. While this question is mostly rooted in the threat posed to the United States by North Korea, the prospect of terrorism at the Olympics (any Olympics) is more on my mind than any possible action against Americans by North Korea.

So what I tell them is this: South Korea is not North Korea. They are geographic neighbors with a complicated history, but they are very different nations. My research — which includes plenty of reading in addition to meetings with representatives of the PyeongChang Organizing Committee, a meeting with the Korean Consul General in Boston, and discussions with several Americans of South Korean ancestry — tells me South Korea is a technologically advanced country that embraces the notion of hospitality toward its visitors.

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South Korean soldiers patrolled the road connecting South and North Korea at the Unification Bridge near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on Wednesday.

One of the reasons the Olympics move around is to showcase different parts the world, and South Korea is very much interested in being part of that showcase.

Since arriving here, I’ve found it’s a place where I feel welcome, and I have had plenty of assistance finding my way in my first few days from the incredibly well-organized organizers of the Games.

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There’s no doubt that saber-rattling both by the United States and North Korea can be alarming. Who wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at the headlines, or tweets, that detail the back and forth between the nations’ leaders?

But it’s also been going on for a while.

In 1995, I traveled to Cuba at a time when most American travel there was prohibited because of US sanctions. The trip I was on was allowed because it was a cultural exchange of good will, featuring a youth baseball team.

While we were there, the hostile state of affairs between the US and Cuba hovered over everything, but it was never a direct issue. Everywhere we visited, we were welcomed. Even the police, who were undoubtedly tasked with watching and charting our every move, were friendly. Sometimes they even joked about the relationships between our governments being so unlike what we were experiencing on the ground.

We were humans from vastly different places brought together by a common interest in a game, and we distanced ourselves from politicians.

I thought of that experience a lot as I prepared for the Olympics. The reported abuse and oppression of the North Korean people is maddening, and the prospect of a conflict angers me.

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But South Korea can be perceived unfairly because of its proximity. South Korea, in fact, has an excellent relationship with the United States, and wants nothing more than for these Olympics to be Games of peace. That starts with an agreement for the two Koreas to march together at the Opening Ceremony and a deal to field a women’s hockey team with players from both sides of the DMZ.

I am confident the Olympic spirit, not fear, will prevail.


Matt Pepin can be reached at matt.pepin@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @mattpep15