With Olympics over, Team Korea goes back to being 2 countries

Geopolitical tensions that at times overshadowed sporting events inevitably intruded on closing ceremony
Fireworks during the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Feb. 25, 2018.
Fireworks during the closing ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Feb. 25, 2018.

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The 23rd Winter Olympics came to a festive close on Sunday, with athletes from the two Koreas marching into the cold stadium together, but wearing different uniforms and waving the flags of their own countries.

Although some athletes also carried flags showing a unified peninsula, the fact that so many were carrying distinct national flags was a pungent sign that the truce between North and South Korea that had marked these Olympic Games might already be dissipating.

The 22 North Korean athletes — as well as the hundreds of cheerleaders and security minders who accompanied them — will now depart for home across the heavily fortified border that divides the two nations.

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The geopolitical tensions that at times overshadowed the sporting events inevitably intruded on the closing ceremony, with Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter and senior adviser, sitting in the stands close to Kim Yong Chol, a former spymaster from North Korea accused of overseeing a deadly attack on South Korea in 2010.

Kim’s presence seemed to suggest a shift in tone from Pyongyang’s delegation to the opening ceremony, when Kim Yo Jong, the sister of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, represented a softer face of the regime.

Vice President Mike Pence, who led the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony, did not stand when the unified team marched into the stadium, but Ivanka Trump stood with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Kim Yong Chol as the athletes from the two Koreas appeared on Sunday night.

According to a senior administration official, Ivanka Trump had no interaction with the North Korean delegation.

But even before the closing ceremony began, the hiatus from the nuclear crisis that the Olympics had offered was clearly ending. On Friday, Donald Trump announced harsh new sanctions against North Korea. And hours before the ceremony began on Sunday, a spokesman from the North’s Foreign Ministry described the sanctions as an act of war even as Moon met with the North Korean delegation Sunday afternoon.

After that meeting, and shortly after the Olympic ceremony began, the presidential palace said in a statement that North Korea had indicated it was willing to talk to the United States. But differences are wide, and only the coming weeks and months will show whether the Olympic diplomacy has had a lasting effect.

Still, for a brief moment, the closing festivities celebrated the success of the Pyeongchang Olympics. Organizers said it was the largest Winter Games yet, with 92 countries represented, including first-timers like Ecuador, Kosovo, Nigeria and Singapore.

Despite a cyberattack during the opening ceremony, an outbreak of norovirus and the official suspension of the Russian team for doping violations, the games went off smoothly.

There were highlights aplenty. South Korea broke out in a frenzy over curling as its women’s team racked up one surprising win after another, all the way to a silver medal. Chloe Kim, 17, the Korean-American snowboarder, astonished judges and crowds with a near-perfect gold medal run on the halfpipe.

Esther Ledecka of the Czech Republic became the first woman to win a gold medal in two sports in a single Winter Games, while Yuzuru Hanyu, the men’s figure skating champion from Japan, returned after a four-month hiatus because of an ankle injury and captured his second consecutive Olympic gold medal. After a spine tingling shootout, the U.S. women’s ice hockey team beat Canada to win the gold medal for the first time in two decades.

Norway dominated the medals table, collecting 39 overall, 14 of them gold. The United States won 23 medals, and South Korea 17.

North Korea never made it to the medal podium. The only athletes to qualify for the Olympics on merit, Ryom Tae Ok, 19, and Kim Ju Sik, 25, placed 13th in the pairs figure skating. All the other athletes in the North’s delegation placed last or near the bottom in their events.

And the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team, the only team to include North and South Korean athletes on its roster, lost all five of the games they played at the Olympics.

But perhaps the most important achievement of the Pyeongchang Games was that they were peaceful. In his speech at the closing ceremony, Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, thanked the athletes from South Korea and North Korea.

“You have shown how sports bring people together in our very fragile world,” he said.

Before North and South agreed that their athletes would march under one flag, tensions on the peninsula had reached a bombastic peak. Officials worried that if the North did not send athletes, it might try to disrupt the games.

“The last couple of months have been characterized by restraint on both sides,” said Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “This Olympic initiative is really the only thing that has altered North Korea’s path over the last year and a half. So Washington ought to be very thankful that Seoul has taken on this outsized role.”

Ivanka Trump, who spent most of the last two days attending events and cheering on American Olympians, did not meet officially with the North Korean delegation in either Pyeongchang or Seoul.

Despite some signals from the Trump administration that Washington is willing to engage in some kind of outreach to Pyongyang, analysts said the government had no clear road map for how to move forward.

“It’s clear to me that they have no plans for what happens if the North Koreans actually do come to talks,” said Jung H. Pak, a senior fellow at the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. Ivanka Trump, she said, had come to the Olympics “equipped with the talking points, but not what to do to finesse the situation to possibly get dialogue going.”

North Korea’s decision to send a former spymaster to the closing ceremony was controversial in South Korea; Kim Yong Chol is widely believed to have helped orchestrate the sinking of a South Korean naval ship in 2010, which killed 46 sailors.

Some conservative lawmakers protested. An editorial in the daily Hankook-Ilbo warned that anger over Kim Yong Chol’s presence could “divide South Korea.”

“If Seoul cannot manage the Kim Yong Chol variable properly, not only will improving inter-Korean relations fail, but the state of affairs surrounding the Korean Peninsula might face raging waves,” the editorial said.

With Ivanka Trump at the ceremony, some South Koreans remained hopeful that officials could build on the Olympic truce.

Her visit is “a good gesture,” said Lim Dae-hun, 45, a mobile phone development company worker from Suwon who watched the parallel giant slalom snowboarding event on Saturday.

“If the U.S. is apathetic about talking about dialogue between North Korea and South Korea, then Ivanka would not have come,” Lim said. “But as the U.S. needed a representative, I think that she is a positive sign for both countries.”

South Korea and the United States will have to decide how and when to resume joint military exercises that North Korea regularly protests, while Moon will have to decide whether to accept Kim Jong Un’s invitation to visit Pyongyang for a summit meeting.

Such decisions could strain ties between the United States and South Korea. North Korea is looking for breaking points, said Kelly Magsamen, vice president for national security at the Center for American Progress. She added, “I think as little daylight as possible is essential at this time.”

Analysts warned against having too many expectations for diplomatic results from the Olympics.

“I never saw the Olympics as a venue to accomplish anything diplomatically,” said Laura Rosenberger, a senior fellow and director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy. “To me it’s pageantry — and that’s fine. “

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