Where EAST meets the Northwest
KOREAN COMPLICATIONS. South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-ju, right, and her North
Korean counterpart, Hong Un Jong, pose together for photographers during the
artistic gymnastics women’s qualification at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de
Janeiro, Brazil. Like dozens of athletes at the Rio Games, some competitors from
North and South Korea have posed together for grinning selfies, which have then
been posted to social media and documented by some of the hundreds of
journalists. The interactions are not strictly illegal in South Korea, but they
are complicated by the long history of animosity and bloodshed between the
countries. (Kim Do-hoon/Yonhap via AP)
From The Asian Reporter, V26, #16 (August 15, 2016), pages 13 & 16.
Even Olympic selfies are complicated by Koreas’ rivalry
By Foster Klug
The Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO — Nothing is ever easy for the rival Koreas, even that most
ubiquitous and usually innocent of Olympic interactions, the selfie.
Like dozens of athletes at the Rio Games, gymnasts Hong Un Jong of North
Korea and Lee Eun-ju of South Korea met on the sidelines during competition and
The 17-year-old Lee, who is at her first Olympics, posed for a smiling selfie
with Hong, a 27-year-old veteran. That friendly encounter and others between the
two were captured by journalists — and immediately took on larger significance
for two countries still technically at war.
Such meetings are not illegal in South Korea, but they are complicated by the
two countries’ long history of animosity and bloodshed.
Hong became the first female gymnast from North Korea to win a gold medal in
2008, when Lee was nine years old and living in her native Japan. Lee moved to
South Korea in 2013 because her Korean father wanted her to learn more about the
A few days after the selfie was taken, Lee and Hong met again while on the
floor at the same time during preliminary competition. Lee was eliminated, while
Hong finished sixth in the vault competition.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach described the Koreans’
selfie as a "great gesture."
"Fortunately, we see quite a few of these gestures here during the Olympic
games," Bach said.
Photos of their warm moments delighted many South Koreans and provided a rare
note of concord in otherwise abysmal relations between the rivals. It is unclear
if the gymnasts’ interaction was seen in the North, an authoritarian state with
extremely limited press freedom and where access to outside media is usually
The Korean Peninsula is still technically in a state of war because there has
been no peace treaty signed to officially end the 1950-1953 Korean War. Nearly
30,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against North
Korea, and the neighbors regularly trade insults and warnings of war, including
recent threats from the North of missile strikes on Seoul and its ally,
A web of laws, most leftover from the days when the South was ruled by a
dictatorship, govern how South Koreans are supposed to interact with North
Koreans. Travel and communication are severely restricted; even praising the
North is illegal in the South.
South Koreans are required by law to obtain government permission for any
planned meeting, communication, or other contact with North Koreans.
This requirement is waived for spontaneous interactions with North Koreans
that can happen during foreign travel, like the Olympics. But South Koreans must
still provide an account of what happened to the South Korean Unification
Ministry, which handles inter-Korean issues, within seven days, according to the
So while it’s OK for South Korean athletes to talk to the North Koreans they
meet at the Olympics, they must later submit reports about the encounters to
their Olympic committee, which will then pass the information to the government.
These brief, friendly moments between North and South Korean athletes at the
Olympics may not seem to be a big deal to outsiders, but they often stimulate
deep emotions on the Korean Peninsula, which has been divided by the world’s
most heavily armed border for decades and where many long for eventual
Inter-Korean ties, never good, have been terrible in the past decade of
conservative rule in the South. But there were friendlier days under previous
liberal governments in Seoul, and they were often seen most clearly in sports.
North and South Koreans, for instance, marched together under a flag that
symbolized unification during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Whatever happens in politics, many South Koreans love seeing their athletes
treating North Korean competitors with respect, and there’s always lots of media
attention on these moments of harmony. North Korea also cherishes the idea of
unification, and much of its propaganda is aimed at stirring such feelings in
the South, though the North’s vision is of a single Korea controlled by
When North Korea’s women’s soccer team won gold at the 2014 Asian Games in
Incheon, South Korea, and the South won bronze, many South Koreans expressed
delight in seeing players from both countries celebrate together after the medal
ceremony, smiling and putting their arms around each other.
Similarly, the Rio Olympic selfies represent a small thaw in otherwise frigid
ties — just as long as it’s all reported to the authorities.
AP writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this story from Seoul, South Korea.
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