Pyeongchang 2018 – Asia’s third Winter Olympics, following Sapporo 1972 and Nagano 1998 – kicked off Friday among the mountains of South Korea and in the presence of leaders from countries across the world – including, most notably, the highest-level delegation of North Koreans ever to visit the South.
The ceremony, in the town of Daegwallyeong in the high country of Pyeongchang County, Gangwon Province, took place in a 20,000 seat open-air stadium, which had prompted fears of visitors suffering from the cold – the town is widely reported to be the coldest settlement in South Korea.
In a lengthy address to VIPs circulated by the presidential office, South Korean President Moon Jae-in referenced that risk, noting, “Shin Young-bok, an esteemed Korea thinker, once said that huddling together to brave the wintry chill with the body heat of the person next to you is ‘primordial friendship.’”
A ‘primordial friendship’ that Moon – and many around the world – would like to promote is one between two visiting VIPs: Kim Yong-nam, North Korea’s parliamentary head and the highest-ranking North Korean to visit South Korea in the divided peninsula’s history, and visiting US Vice President Mike Pence.
However, according to a report from Yonhap, the two studiously ignored each other at a pre-opening ceremony reception.
Even so the sprightly looking Kim – he is 90 – joined a photo opp with Moon, and greeted his wife. Kim was also seen talking with UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres in TV footage of the pre-event reception, although Kim and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not appear to communicate.
Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, arrived in South Korea earlier in the day by private jet and is scheduled to hold a lunchtime summit with Moon on Saturday. She was absent from footage of the pre-ceremony dinner, but did appear at the opening ceremony, where she was seen smiling as she met Moon.
The two North Koreans were prominently seated behind Moon and his wife; Pence and his wife were seated nearby, to the left of the South Korea presidential couple. No communication appeared to take place between the Americans and the North Koreans.
Other VIPs included the presidents of Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Switzerland; the prime ministers of Finland the Netherlands and Norway; and the king of Sweden. Two visitors who were not welcomed were impersonators of Donald Trump and Kim Jong-nam. According to social media posts, the pair of pranksters were escorted out of the venue.
Prominent locals at the ceremony included conservative ex-South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, who held power from 2008-2013 and is currently investigation for multiple crimes allegedly committed during his term in office. His conservative successor, Park Geun-hye, having been impeached in a corruption and influence peddling scandal, is behind bars.
Another attendee was Lee Jae-yong, the de facto head of Samsung. Lee was earlier this week released after a year in jail, for his part in the bribery scandal that dethroned Park, with a suspended sentence. The payment of corporate monies into two foundations – one being engaged in sports promotions – formed a critical element of the Park scandal. Hyundai and Samsung have been significant benefactors of sports in the past; Hanjin Corp, which owns Korean Air, is a major supporter of Pyeongchang 2018.
There are, according to government information, some 2,925 athletes participating, from 92 countries. Some nations attending the Winter Games not noted for prowess at winter sports include Ghana, Jamaica, Nigeria, the Philippines and Tonga. During the 17-day event, there are 103 gold medals up for grabs, in 15 events, to take place in 12 venues. Of those venues, six are new.
Just prior to the ceremony starting in the venue, a group of red-suited North Korean cheerleaders sang, a capella, the popular North Korean tune “Pangapsumnida” (“Nice to meet you”) while waving the flag representing the unified Korean teams.
Earlier in the day, a small demonstration of young Koreans in Daegwallyeong, outnumbered by police, had raised signs reading “From Pyeongchang, Toward Peace,” and waving reunification flags. Outside the cordon established by police around the town, conservatives had rallied in at least three separate locations, waving Korean and US flags in a demonstration against North Korea’s presence.
Pyeongchang 2018 is officially branded “Passion. Connected,” but since the last-minute North Korean participation became reality, they have been unofficially rebranded by Moon himself to “The Peace Olympics.” The ceremony, themed “Peace and Future,” proved to be a spectacle that blended traditional Asian motifs with high Asian technologies.
It featured pantomime tigers, dragons, mantises and phoenixes, as well as troupes of dancers, singers and drummers. Korean traditional costumes and drummers blended with K-pop, breakdancing and western songs by the likes of John Lennon. Defying some expectations, the South Korean flag – it is being replaced by a unified Korean flag for the sportive events, to the fury of conservatives – was prominently showcased.
Visual technologies were powerfully leveraged. The venue functioned as a screen onto which were projected a range of images, while small screens beside each seat allowed the crowd itself to be used as a display. Holography was employed to scintillating effect.
The athlete march on was conducted according to the order of the Korean, rather than the Roman alphabet, meaning after Greece – the traditional first team in all Olympic events – Ghana was first onto the field.
As per tradition, the host team – in fact, a unified Korean Team, including 22 North Korean athletes – were the last to march on. While there have been joint march-ons by both Koreas, and also joint sports teams, in the past, Pyeonchang marks the first time the estranged neighbors have fielded a unified Olympic squad – in this case, a Women’s Ice Hockey Team. The Koreans marched on to an electronic version of the mournful folk tune “Arirang.”
After messages from IOC President Thomas Bach, Moon declared the Games open: the Olympic torch was lit by South Korean Olympic superstar and figure-skating legend Kim Yu-na. The event came to a happy ending with dance performers “Just Jerk.”
Pyeongchang 2018 is the first of a trio of consecutive Asian Olympiads. It is followed by the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games and the Beijing 2024 Winter Games. Over the next 44 days, Gangwon Province will be staging a “Cultural Olympiad” featuring performers from all three Northeast Asian nations.