Gangneung Style: Covering the 2018 Winter Olympics 4
Asia Times correspondent Andrew Salmon reflects on how the best pre-Games hopes and worst pre-Games fears are being fulfilled – simultaneously
So: How about yesterday, eh? I have been covering the Koreas for some 15 years. I recall both inter-Korean summits, and covered one. But never do I recall such a whirlwind day of inter-Korean relations.
Nor do I recall a day when so many predictions – both hopeful and dire – look as if they may come to pass.
President Moon Jae-in met, lunched and summited with Kim Yo-jong, the rather coy and attractive younger sista of Kim Jong-un at the presidential residence. In the Blue House, the two appeared to get on like a house on fire: Not only did Kim offer Moon the much anticipated letter from big bro, Moon has been invited to Pyongyang, to hold Inter-Korean Summit III with Kim III.
(An aside: Although this is the first-ever visit to South Korea by a member of the Kim Dynasty, the Blue House itself may not be totally unfamiliar to Ms. Kim. Photos – the veracity of which I cannot vouch for – which have leaked onto specialist North Korean websites, depict an accurate, full-scale mock-up of the structure in North: It is apparently used for military drills by North Korean commandos.)
Later in the day, Moon and Kim travelled the width of the peninsula, coming to Gangeung, the coastal city on the east coast, to watch the first game of the just-formed inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team together.
Years ago, at a press conference, I asked then-presidential candidate Moon if the monarch in the North is a man he could do business with. Moon responded that the two could conduct relations, without having to personally like each other. That was then – this is now.
Judging by the chemistry seen on TV footage, Moon is cheerier and more comfortable in the company of the North Koreans than he is in that of Japanese President Shinzo Abe or US President Mike Pence. (I would add that Pence, judging by his actions in Korea thus far, makes his boss, Donald Trump, look like a simpering liberal wimp. In fact, it would be difficult to think of actions more carefully designed to irritate and irk the North Koreans. For more, see the lower half of yesterday’s Asia Times story on the Kim-Moon summit.)
Also on this day of days, North and South Korean held a joint taekwondo demonstration together. I am familiar with the key players in taekwondo, and I have to say the optics between the senior World Taekwondo (South Korean) and International Taekwondo Federation (North Korea) officials have never looked better. Last year, with all inter-Korean communications cut, taekwondo was one of the few bodies that had a direct line to the North. So, I will go out on a limb and make a prediction here: If and when Moon meets Kim, a South Korean taekwondo team may well accompany him for goodwill demonstrations in North Korea.
As noted, yesterday was also the first match of the joint hockey squad. It is fair to say that South Korea is divided on this issue: Those who want rapprochement with the North are all in favor, but many here are also angry at the last-minute integration of the Northern players onto the Southern team, which they think has robbed the southern lasses of their (admittedly slim) chances for sportive glory.
Moon and Kim personally spoke to the players after the match, but the result may indicate the risk of rushing into inter-Korean deals: Team Unified Korea was annihilated by Team Switzerland, losing 8-0.
An endless range of pundits – from slurring men in pubs in Seoul to be-spectacled wonks in Washington – has warned, pre-Games, that the North Koreans would attempt to charm the South Koreans and drive the much feared “wedge” between the allies. I don’t think Moon is nearly as naïve (or even traitorous) as hardline conservatives love to believe, but if yesterday is any indication, the North may, indeed, have a workable strategy.
So, President Moon (if you are reading this) allow me to say: “Be on your guard, sir! This is no time to go wobbly on the North and their nukes! But at a time when almost every source I encounter in the US military is telling me that Washington is more likely than not to strike North Korea – even an American I was interviewing at the opening ceremony, who has relatives in the service in the States, said this to me yet again two days ago – the time for you to aggressively wage peace, on all fronts, is now.”
Now, back to business.
Yesterday I was frantically dashing all over the province, catching a cab, an express bus, another cab, hitching two separate rides with colleagues and getting stuck in the weapons-grade traffic jam generated by Kim Yo-jong’s unplanned visit to Gangneung, in order to cover the taekwondo.
Today, I am going to stay in town and visit a most interesting artefact which the North Koreans unwittingly donated to South Korea in 1996: A reconnaissance submarine. The tragic and downright horrific story of that vessel, and an inside scoop I have on the inter-Korean hockey team, represent my labors for today.
More fun and Games tomorrow.