PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The opening ceremony of the 23rd Winter Olympics unfurled in frigid temperatures and high spirits Friday, as athletes from the two Koreas marched into the stadium together less than 50 miles from the heavily fortified border between their nations and offered hope of a breakthrough in a tense, geopolitical standoff that has stirred fears of nuclear conflict.
The festivities launched what organizers say is the largest Winter Olympics yet, with 92 countries participating. The North and South Korean delegations, marching under one flag, embodied the hopes of a peninsula divided by history and ideology.
Whereas recent Olympic Games have sought to set politics to one side, in Pyeongchang the strategic subtext of the event has been unavoidable.
The younger sister of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader, was sitting at the opening ceremony closely behind Vice President Mike Pence, who led the U.S. delegation, and also present was the father of Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who was jailed in North Korea last year, returned home in a coma and died shortly afterward.
Earlier in the week, the United States warned against a North Korean charm offensive and announced plans to impose its toughest sanctions yet against North Korea, which staged a military parade featuring intercontinental ballistic missiles just a day before the games opened.
The mounting political drama loomed over other Olympic story lines, including the participation of Russian athletes despite a ban after a doping scandal, and the appearance of the first Nigerian contingent in the Winter Games with a women’s bobsled team. And then there are the gold medal hopefuls, like Nathan Chen, the U.S. ice skating prodigy who may seek to land five quad jumps in competition, and Chloe Kim, the teenage Korean-American snowboarding phenom.
And as if there were not enough distractions already, a worsening outbreak of the highly contagious norovirus has been spreading from security personnel to other Olympic workers.
In the run-up to the opening ceremony, North Korea dominated the news cycle at every turn. For the month since North Korea agreed to send 22 athletes and an entourage of artistic performers and dignitaries to the games, the news media was riveted by an advance visit by one of North Korea’s most celebrated pop stars, the arrival of North Korean cheerleaders in matching red wool coats, and controversies over whether the North’s participation in the Olympics would violate international sanctions punishing North Korea for its nuclear weapons development.
And Pence’s visit — which included a meeting Friday with North Korean defectors — exposed deepening strains in ties between the longtime allies, as he suggested that South Korea curtail ties to the North after the Olympics end.
But South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, sees the games as central to his effort to proactively engage North Korea and persuade the reclusive country to enter into negotiations to scale back its nuclear and ballistic missile program.
“Many considered it an impossible dream to have an Olympics of peace, in which North Korea would participate and the two Koreas would form a joint team,” Moon said in an address to the International Olympic Committee earlier this week.
Friday’s opening ceremony, directed by Song Seung-whan, a South Korean actor and popular theatrical creator, sought to project a vision of unification and peace on the long-divided peninsula.
“As a starting point, Korea is the only divided country in the world,” Song said in an interview hours before the ceremony began. He said that even though North Korea was not expected to attend when he began planning the ceremony’s themes, “we started with peace in mind.”
“Of course it was a surprise,” he said of the North’s decision to join the games. “It will be an opportunity for the peace we were thinking of to be shown to the world in a more deep way.”
Although athletes from the two Koreas marched under a unified flag, a group of traditionally dressed dancers and drummers formed the shape of the Taegeuk, the traditional pattern that appears on the South Korean flag. And a paean to technological developments in artificial intelligence highlighted South Korean achievements.
A backlash against the last-minute participation of North Korea, particularly the addition of a dozen North Korean women’s hockey players onto the roster of the South Korean team, cast a shadow over a moment that was meant to exemplify unity.
“Instead of paying attention to all of the excellent athletes who are coming from all over the world, we are paying all our attention to the inter-Korean women’s hockey team,” Elisa Lee, a former table tennis champion and coach for South Korea and a former member of the National Assembly, said in an interview earlier this week in Seoul. “I think it’s a little bit unfortunate.”
Critics also feared that in seeking better ties with North Korea, Moon had compromised too much.
“Bending to a dictator like Kim Jong Un is in conflict with the dignity” of South Koreans, Yoon Pyung-Joong, a professor of political philosophy at Hanshin University, wrote in an editorial earlier this month in Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper. “The crisis on the Korean Peninsula does not get resolved with a one-off event like sports games or an inter-Korean summit meeting.” This year was not the first time that athletes from North and South Korea marched together under one flag. They did so in 2000 at the Sydney Olympics in Australia as well as in 2004 in Athens and 2006 in Torino, Italy.
But by doing so in South Korea — and in Gangwon province, where North Korea is visible from the peaks of the ski slopes — the symbolism this time was particularly striking. It also provided a stark contrast to the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, where the North Koreans did not compete after organizing a terrorist attack in when spies blew up a South Korean airliner 10 months before the games, killing everyone on board.
The Seoul Olympics ended up being a turning point for South Korea as it pulled away from North Korea economically, politically and culturally.
It was also, as it turned out, a turning point for the world. After two previous summer games roiled by political boycotts in Moscow and Los Angeles, the countries that had sat out those games all sent athletes to Seoul, making it the host of the largest number of participating nations during the Cold War era.
A year later, the Berlin Wall fell. The Soviet Union collapsed not long after that.
“In a sense, the Cold War symbolically ended with the Seoul Olympics,” Lee O. Young, creative director of the 1988 opening ceremony, said in an interview in his library in Seoul this week.
Lee, whose slogan for those ceremonies was “beyond the wall,” said that he believed in the power of imagination to drive change.
“The Pyeongchang Olympics, in very surprising ways, could be another turning point in the way the Seoul Olympics was,” Lee said. “After the Seoul Olympics, we have been experiencing a new Cold War, and the Pyeongchang Olympics might set another milestone.”