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Pomp and politics

Pomp and politics
Had the late British composer, Edward Elgar, been present at the grand opening of the latest Winter Olympics, he might have renamed his celebrated composition "Pomp and Circumstance" to "Pomp and Politics". For, that, indeed, was what the event seemed to be all about. North and South Koreans sat side-by-side under exploding fireworks that represented peace, not destruction. As the 2018 Winter Olympics opened on a Korean Peninsula driven by generations of anger, suspicion and bloodshed, other things were happening too. The sister of North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, the first ever visitor from the ruling dynasty in the North, shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and appeared genuinely pleased while they watched an elaborate show of light, sound, and human performance. Minutes later came a moment stunning in its optics and its implications: the United States represented by Vice President Mike Pence, sitting a row ahead of Kim's sister, Kim Yo-jong, and the North's nominal head of state, all watching the games begin. And, to think that until recently, the two nations had virtually been on the brink of a real nuclear conflict. As North and South Korean athletes entered the Olympic Stadium together, waving flags showing a unified Korea, the long-time dream of unity, in theory at least, of many Koreans both North and South seemed to be real. There have, of course, been two days of competition since and several medals have been won. The joint North-South hockey team lost their first game but that hardly matters. Significantly, South Korean President Moon received an invitation from his Northern counterpart for an official visit across the border as soon as possible. The response was quick and gracious. The right circumstances must be created for that new phase of talks to begin, he said, implying an ally like the US must also join in. What happens now remains to be seen. There is nothing like dialogue and negotiations to ease tensions on all fronts. But, the grand opening would still carry so much significance. The Winter Olympics opened before a world watching the moment not only for its athletic significance and global spectacle but also for clues about what the peninsula's political future could hold. There was palpable excitement in the isolated mountain town with the hopes of some inter-Korean reconciliation. After a chaotic year of nuclear war threats and nuclear and missile tests from the North, this, by the calculations of both Washington and Seoul seemed to be a good "diplomatic opportunity". The significance of Pence and the North Koreans sitting in the same box was not immediately clear, though it seemed to run counter to the mission he was supposed to undertake. He had been dispatched from Washington for the Olympics in part, he said, to make sure that the world did not forget that North Korea was a misbehaving and dangerous neighbour in the community of nations. But, could he not have afforded even a friendly nod? This, after all, was also the turn of the US to indicate what it had really meant and seize the opportunity. After two failed Olympic bids that emphasised the high-sounding notion that the games could help make peace with North Korea, Pyeongchang finally sold its successful try in 2011 on the decidedly "capitalistic" goal of boosting winter sports tourism in Asia. But, North Korea has a habit of not letting itself be ignored when it comes to its southern rival. Its agents had even blown up a South Korean airliner ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympics in an attempt to dissuade visitors; then, it boycotted its rival's Olympic debut on the world stage. A few years later, the discovery of the huge progress Pyongyang had been surreptitiously making on its nuclear programmes plunged the Korean Peninsula into crisis. It has only deepened over the years as the North closes in on the ability to field an arsenal of nukes that can hit US cities.
And so, with a little help from a liberal South Korean President eager to engage Pyongyang, the 2018 Pyeongchang Games took off. They did so with as much focus on the North, which has zero real medal contenders, as the South, which in the three decades since its last Olympics has built a solid winter programme as it went from economic backwater and military dictatorship to becoming Asia's fourth-biggest economy and a bulwark of liberal democracy. Could Pyeongchang's initial pitch that it could contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula, actually become reality? The opening ceremony offered at least some hints about that, and maybe more. There is, indeed, hope for a lasting political thaw. But, how lasting would it be now lingers as the main question.
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