GANGNEUNG, South Korea – The biggest star of the Olympics came strolling into the Kwandong Hockey Centre Saturday Night and was met with gasps, cheers and cell phones held aloft by fans trying to get a picture.
Surrounded by bodyguards and media, Kim Yo Jong, sporting her signature black coat and pulled-back hair, quickly found her seat along the blue line. There she received a warm welcome, and not merely from the 200 or so red-clad cheerleaders her North Korean homeland sent here.
Earlier in the day, Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, had delivered an invitation for South Korean president Moon Jae-in to meet with her brother in Pyongyang, the North’s capital. It is an historic offer the North Koreans say is designed to thaw tensions between the two nations. Only twice have the heads of the two Koreas met since their division some 70 years ago.
“I expect Pyongyang and Seoul to get closer in the hearts of our [Korean] people and the future of unification and prosperity will be advanced,” Kim Yo Jong reportedly wrote in a guest book at the presidential blue house after the meeting with Moon.
In the South there is, at least, optimism that all of this could lead to better days between the nations that mostly have just bad ones.
The two countries are technically still at war from the conflict of the early 1950s. They’ve endured a year of heightened hostility as the North strengthened its nuclear capabilities while the South, along with the United States and much of the rest of the world, imposed heavy economic sanctions.
Kim Yo Jong’s attendance at the hockey game capped a whirlwind day and a half where she took the Olympics by storm just by being here. South Korea was fascinated by her confident, fashionable persona. Footage of her walking and smiling as she arrived in Seoul by private jet, shaking hands with Moon at the opening ceremony, and standing tall at Saturday’s high-stakes meeting has been featured wall-to-wall on South Korean television and plastered across social media.
She appeared unexpectedly approachable for a nation best known for three generations of brutal dictatorship, economic suffering and menacing isolation. That she delivered the invitation for a meeting backed up the visuals.
By the time she came to a women’s hockey game featuring players from both South and North Korea, she was a celebrity, albeit one that holds a prominent position in arguably the most ruthless government on earth.
Fans gawked in her direction. Others waved unification flags. She sat near President Moon and the IOC’s Thomas Bach, among other dignitaries. The cheerleaders, wearing red warmups and carrying a bag of props never stopped dancing, clapping and singing encouraging tunes. “Be Strong.” “Win. Win.” They, too, waved unification flags, no small gesture.
Eventually the game was played and, bless them, it was clear few fans in attendance had ever seen the sport. They even cheered an icing call on Korea.
It didn’t matter. Hockey is fun to watch and the night was a rowdy, rollicking, unmitigated success, the final score notwithstanding; the overmatched Koreans lost 8-0 to Switzerland.
Some fans wished politics hadn’t infiltrated the Games, but others saw a unified team and their introduction to Kim Yo Jong as a possibility for something better.
“She’s different,” said Hyun Yu, a fan from South Korea. “We’ll see.”
How this all came about is, so far, the story of the Olympics. As late as December the North was officially boycotting these Olympics, which was fine with many in the wary South tired of the war games and missile programs that hang over everyday life. The border is just a few dozen miles from here, across a 4-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone. In the North life is full of hardship and abuse. The South is a competitive, capitalistic nation built for the 21st century. There is no starker a contrast in the world. Plus, at any moment, the North could level Seoul with its stockpile of weapons.
Once the North committed to come, and the women’s hockey roster was symbolically divided up between South and North, this was always going to be more than a game. Moon had declared this be known as the “Peace Olympics,” and he went out of his way to accommodate the North.
North Korea sent a handful of additional athletes, plus the 22-person delegation led by Kim Yo Jong. There are the impossible-to-miss cheerleaders, plus a large performing troop that staged concerts featuring pop songs and unification messages here and in Seoul. The Opening Ceremonies featured a South Korean hockey player and a North Korean hockey player together carrying the torch up a lengthy flight of stairs.
The North hasn’t completely forgotten what it is. At one point, the cheerleaders sang a song while holding cutouts featuring the face of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung. Kim Yo Jong wore a pin to her meeting with Moon that featured the image of Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un staged a military parade on the eve of the Games.
That seems to matter less here than the hope for the future and the cautious excitement that the North is reengaging with the South. Not since 2007 have the two countries met, and Kim Jong Un hasn’t met with any foreign heads of state since taking over the country in 2011.
Now, who knows? The United States, represented by Vice President Mike Pence, has warned not to trust the North and continued calls for harsher sanctions. Pence could very well be correct, but the mood here, at least for now, feels conciliatory and celebratory. The image of Pence refusing to stand for the unified Korean team as it was introduced at Opening Ceremonies has received plenty of media play here and used as anti-American propaganda in the North.
Moon hasn’t officially agreed to the meeting, although the South Korean government said he replied, “Let’s create the right circumstance to make it happen.” If nothing else, these Olympics have swept in new ambitions.
“It was special,” defenseman Yoonjung Park said of the game. “A special moment. Hopefully playing as a unified team is a small step into something bigger.”
On Saturday night they staged a hockey game. Fans cheered. Flags waved. No one seem to know what exactly they were watching, but that wasn’t the point.
“We are together,” the cheerleaders sang when it was over, serenading the players. “We are one.”
The two Koreas competed together, skated together, stood together. All as a nuclear-armed dictator’s younger sister sat, cheered and watched as everyone else watched her, optimistic that the hope she brought with her is real.
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