The Anxiety of the Olympics in Korea

The Anxiety of the Olympics in Korea

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One week after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the United States
colonels Charles (Tic) Bonesteel and Dean Rusk, the future Secretary of
State, pondered what to do about Korea. Having extracted Tokyo’s
surrender, the U.S. and Russia were left to deal with (i.e., divvy up)
what had been a Japanese colony. “Neither Tic nor I was a Korea expert,
but it seemed to us that Seoul, the capital, should be in the American
sector,” Rusk later wrote. “Using a National Geographic map, we looked
just north of Seoul for a convenient dividing line.” The Thirty-eighth Parallel,
which divides North and South to this day, had historical
precedent—Japan and Russia had haggled unsuccessfully over the same
boundary in the late nineteenth century. But for Bonesteel and Rusk, as
the journalist Barbara Demick notes, “The division was very random.”

The Thirty-eighth Parallel remains a simmering hot plate in an
otherwise Cold War. It’s also the starting point for an understanding of
inter-Korean and U.S.-Korean relations, even when it comes to a cheery
event like the Winter Olympics. “The Anxiety of the Olympics in Korea” is
a compact guide to the swirl of politics and history unfolding in Pyeongchang, South Korea. This month, as a symbolic rejoinder
to the unnerving exchanges between Washington and Seoul, athletes from
the two Koreas will march under a united flag. “Kim Jong Un saw a great
opportunity with these Olympics to try to neutralize the effect of
international condemnation,” Demick explains. “South Koreans are very
vulnerable to North Korea’s tantrums.”

The games in Pyeongchang come thirty years after Korea hosted its first
Olympics, in Seoul. Months before the 1988 Summer Games,
tens of thousands of South Koreans had risen up against the country’s
authoritarian regime and forced a reasonably democratic Presidential
election. I recall watching the lavish opening ceremonies with my
immigrant parents, on a small Sony TV. As lines of traditional
dancers entered the stadium, to the tune of Korean taepyeongso and changgu drums, I wondered if Mom and Dad felt homesick.

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February 1, 2018 at 02:06PM

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