Joint Olympic flag deal angers conservatives in South Korea

Visitors hang ribbons and unification flags wishing for reunification of the two Koreas on a border wire fence at the Imjingak Pavilion in Paju, near the border with North Korea, South Korea, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Athletes from both Koreas marching behind one flag was an emotional moment at 2000 Olympics, but the plan to do so again isn't generating much enthusiasm among South Koreans for Games in their own country

SEOUL, South Korea — When athletes from the rival Koreas paraded together behind a single flag for the first time at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it was a highly emotional event that came on a wave of hope for reconciliation following their leaders' first-ever summit talks.

The Koreas' plan to do so again at next month's Pyeongchang Olympics hasn't generated much enthusiasm among South Koreans, with many conservatives asking why their athletes cannot carry their own national flag during the first Winter Olympics on their soil.

"We are turning the Pyeongchang Olympics that we've got into the Pyongyang Olympics," said Hong Joon-pyo, leader of South Korea's main conservative opposition party, referring to North Korea's capital. "We are dancing to the tune of (North Korean leader) Kim Jong Un's disguised peace offensive."

The two Koreas reached a package of Olympics-related rapprochement deals on Wednesday, including marching together at the opening ceremony and fielding their first joint Olympic team, in women's ice hockey. The agreements came after three rounds of talks which began after Kim said in a New Year's speech that he was willing to send a delegation to the Feb. 9-25 Pyeongchang Games.

Many critics are skeptical of Kim's abrupt overture, believing he may be trying to use the Olympics to weaken U.S.-led international pressure and sanctions toughened after North Korea's sixth and biggest nuclear test and a series of missile launches last year.

Public surveys show most South Koreans support the North's participation in the Olympics, a chance to create a tentative thaw in the Koreas' long-strained relations. But a poll released Thursday suggests that half of South Koreans oppose a joint flag.

The survey by the private polling group Realmeter indicates how much South Koreans' view of their northern neighbor has changed because of its expanding nuclear and missile programs since the two countries' athletes marched together at sporting events during the era of detente in the 2000s.

At those events, North and South Korean athletes in the same uniforms entered stadiums behind a "unification flag," a blue image of the Korean Peninsula on a white background, to the tune of the Korean traditional folk song "Arirang" instead of their individual national anthems. The name displayed during the marches was "Korea," although the North and South competed separately for medals. Their march at the Sydney Olympics drew a standing ovation, with many spectators shedding tears and the applause continuing until the Koreans finished circling the track.

This week's agreements require approval from the International Olympic Committee, which is to meet officials from the two Koreas and the Pyeongchang organizing committee at IOC headquarters in Switzerland on Saturday.

If approved, the two Koreas are expected to decide whether they will use the same "unification flag" as in the past, who will carry the flag, what uniforms their athletes will wear, and whether they will use the same folk song.

Despite conservative skepticism, South Korea's government led by liberal President Moon Jae-in says it hopes the Olympics will provide the Koreas with a chance to improve their frosty relations. Government officials say the South Korean national flag will appear at the start of the opening ceremony, regardless of the joint march, and will appear again whenever South Korean athletes win medals.

North Korean Olympic participation "will serve as a chance to warm solidly frozen South-North ties," Moon said during a visit with South Korean Olympic athletes on Wednesday. "But if we march together or field a single team, I think that can be a further step in developing South-North relations."

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This story has been corrected to show dates of games are Feb. 9-25.

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