GANGNEUNG, South Korea/SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea’s self-styled “Peace Games” have been a sporting success but public reaction suggests it may have failed its bigger test — to generate the support its president needs to make bold moves to improve ties with old enemy North Korea.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been using the Games, which end on Sunday, to help galvanize the public behind his risky policy of re-engagement with the North, an approach that in the past has ended ultimately in disappointment.
A government official voiced surprise at how young South Koreans, seen among Moon’s core supporters, declined to embrace some of his peace push, which featured a joint women’s ice hockey team made up of players from South and North.
“When Seoul pursued rapprochement with Pyongyang in the early 2000s, most people were hopeful and by and large behind the government. After a decade of up and downs, we just don’t have that anymore,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“It won’t be easy to seek a fundamental change if that means going against public opinion,” the official added.
The failure of the peace message to resonate among young South Koreans was conspicuous at the Pyeongchang Winter Games, especially when North Korea’s cheerleading squad turned up at some of the events to wave unity flags and chant “We are one!”.
“I and frankly most of my friends don’t feel that we are the same people,” university student Lee Seung-hyun, 20, said after watching the cheerleaders as they swayed to old Korean folk tunes, in between K-pop tunes playing over loudspeakers.
“I am turned off when North Korean cheerleaders chant ‘We are one!’ That feels like forcing a sense of unity that isn’t really there.”
Opinion polls showed the public warming to the joint women’s ice hockey team after an initial backlash, but that too appears to have made no lasting impact.
A Gallup Korea opinion poll released on Friday, in the final days of the Games, showed a still divided public, with about 50 percent of respondents supporting the team.
“Let’s be realistic. These are minor developments that lack substance,” James Kim, a research fellow at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said of Moon’s unity symbolism.
“Ultimately, without a major breakthrough between now and the closing ceremony, the situation before and after the Olympics is basically unchanged.”
Even if the Games failed to shift more public support behind Moon, it still brought some tangible results: he coaxed the North out of its isolation to participate in the Games and held the first high-level talks between the two Koreas in two years.
His re-engagement with the North also won apparent endorsement from U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who attended the opening ceremony. Pence said later that Washington would be open to talks with the North without pre-conditions, even as it stepped up its “maximum pressure campaign”.
Washington is imposing its largest set of sanctions on North Korea to pressure it to drop its nuclear missile program. The United States and Asian allies will expand ship interceptions to prevent sanctions violations, U.S. officials said.
If this failed, U.S. President Donald Trump said “phase two” could be “very, very unfortunate for the world”.
But for Moon, who has been invited to a summit in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, garnering public support at home will be crucial to moving further down the peace path.
That task became even more challenging this week when North Korea announced its delegation to attend Sunday’s closing ceremony would be led by an official blamed for the 2010 sinking of a South Korean navy ship that killed 46 sailors.
Family members of the dead sailors and opposition parties angrily denounced Moon’s decision to host Kim Yong Chol, vice-chairman of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee.
Government officials and experts acknowledge that the Games revealed that Seoul no longer has the broad public backing it enjoyed when it last pursued a bold reconciliation.
In 2005, during the so-called Sunshine policy of engagement with the North, South Korea’s Samsung featured a North Korean dancer and a K-pop singer in a cellphone commercial — the kind of step no company appears willing to take now.
Major Olympic sponsors have avoided the “Peace Olympics” in their marketing, given the United States and Japan both accuse the North of using the Games for crude propaganda.
“Public attitudes have cooled significantly as North Korea has continued to ratchet up threats with its persistent nuclear and missile tests,” said Shin Beom-chul, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.
The gulf that Moon is trying to bridge is cultural as well as political, with North and South physically divided for generations, since the end of their 1950-53 war.
Daniel Na, a 34-year-old businessman, took his wife and three-year-old daughter to watch speed skating on Thursday, where the North’s cheerleaders performed their well-drilled routines.
“It’s been entertaining and weird at the same time to watch them,” he said. “I’m normally indifferent to politics, but there’s definitely uneasiness that North Korea is getting away with something.”
Editing by Mark Bendeich