Korea and the Olympics

January 19, 2018
Marissa Wood

This is not a story about whose button is bigger but one of war, sports, and lines on maps.

The Korean Peninsula was first divided after World War II along the 38th parallel between a Soviet-protected north and a US-backed south. It was meant to be a temporary line of separation with the goal of restoring a unified Korean government after decades of Japanese occupation.

But by 1950 the icy fingers of the Cold War gripped the peninsula. The United States and the Soviet Union could not agree on a single Korean government. Then, on June 25, North Korean soldiers crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea, and the Korean War began.

Most of the fighting had trailed off by 1951 and talks of a truce had begun. However, an actual armistice agreement wasn’t signed until 1953. The line separating North and South Korea was adjusted from the 38th parallel to coincide with the frontlines at the end of the Korean War. A 2 km demilitarized zone extends on either side of the Military Demarcation Line.

While talks of reunification have occurred at various points throughout the 20th century, the 1953 Military Demarcation Line continues to serve as the de facto border between North and South Korea.

Soldier (D. E. Grenier) alongside a demarcation sign at Panmunjom, Korea in 1956. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by author Goldblatt.

The 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang are not South Korea’s first time hosting. Its capital city of Seoul held the 1988 Summer Olympics. North Korea refused to attend those Games and attempted to convince their communist allies to boycott the competition as well. The 1988 Summer Games are one of only two missed events since North Korea first started attending the Olympics in 1964. North Korean athletes have won a total of 55 medals excelling in summer sports such as weightlifting and wrestling.

South Korea has participated in every Olympic event since 1948 except for the 1980 Moscow Games. Their athletes have also performed well in the summer games, particularly in judo and archery, and have won over 260 summer and 50 winter medals.

Despite two years of icy relations between North and South Korea, a thaw set in after Kim Jong-un’s 2018 New Year’s Day address where the supreme leader discussed participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics. The two countries have now committed to walking under the Korean Unification Flag at the Opening Ceremony and creating a joint women’s ice hockey team. North Korea has plans to send a large group of athletes, a cheering squad, and other members of cultural demonstration groups across the 1953 Military Demarcation Line and on to Pyeongchang to compete in the 2018 Olympics.

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