(Or, why I hate the Olympics, but cried with joy while watching the opening ceremonies in PyeongChang last night)

February 10th, 2018


Something happened last night in PyeongChang. During the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. Something amazing. Something beautiful, brave, and profoundly important.

But first, before going on I should tell you: I hate the Olympics.

From Seoul to Vancouver to Rio de Janeiro, it has been used—despite and often because of its mission statement of fostering world peace—again and again as an excuse to strong-arm or silence grassroots movements, destroy the environment, wipe out (move out, “disappear”) whole swaths of “undesirable” (poor) populations, and line the pockets of notoriously corrupt officials, business leaders and corporations—in the name of revitalizing such and such city, putting such and such place on the map, and even promoting peace.

The PyeongChang Winter Olympics are no exception. For just one example, witness the destruction of the ancient, sacred forests of Gariwangsan to create an event space that will be used for only a few days.

And yet, with that said, I was profoundly touched by what I saw last night in PyeongChang.

So, given my cynicism and generally anti-Olympics stance, why was I almost weeping while watching the opening ceremonies?

Because I love Korea.

Because brutal, forced separation of families and division of one’s homeland is what is awful, not cries for unity.

Because I am deeply aware, along with millions of others who call Korea home, of the fact that the world is being conditioned through fear and misinformation to accept the “inevitability” of a new US-led war on North Korea. A war that is unnecessary and would destroy most life on this peninsula.

Because in times like these, when a superpower is trying to sell a war that doesn’t make sense, images matter greatly.

And because last night the image makers in South Korea jammed the gears of the war machine.

It was beautiful.

I think I’ve never seen such an intentional, brave, and flawlessly orchestrated statement against war and for diplomacy and a peaceful future, on such a massive and “mainstream” scale, for all the world to see. It was a message going boldly against the war-mongering hypocrisy of a few world leaders and much of the western press. It was risky.

And with Mike Pence sitting stiffly in the stands, here to snake-oil and glad-hand the hypocritical use of another image—the suffering experienced and shared by North Korean defectors—to promote war that was so central to Trump’s recent State of the Union message about North Korea, last night’s images—made by Koreans, about Korea—were essential.

It was a Declaration of South Korean Independence from Trump, and a call from Koreans to the world to recognize, celebrate and support the attempts of an ancient people now divided to make peace, not war.

Korea’s message to the world was clear: it is the ongoing division, not celebrations of unity, that is the impossible nightmare, the still-fresh and open wound that promises only more suffering until it is healed.

Last night the world was able to see, if only for a few moments, that unified Korea is not a dream, but rather it was reality for thousands of years, and it still can be now. And at least from the opening ceremonies until the end of the games, it is again.

South Korea, that is amazing.

A few of the highlights:

*The flag of Korea. The peninsula. The land. The people. Not either of the governments of Korea. But the flag of Korea and Koreans, undivided.

*The children dancing with the white tiger, celebrating the majestic Baekdudaegan—the mountain range starting with Baekdusan in North Korea and winding unbroken all the way to majestic Jirisan on the southern end of the peninsula, then submerging and resurfacing even further south with Hallasan in Jeju—known as the “Tiger’s spine” and symbol of one united Korea.

*The open celebration of the South Korean people’s candlelight revolution that, nonviolently and against a backdrop of Orientalism, cynicism, and indifference from much of the West, deposed their corrupt president last year—through a Gwanghwamun-style candlelight performance that included thousands of citizens merging into the shape of a fiery dove.

* Listening to “Imagine” being co-led by 전인권 and 이은미, two music legends that have used their voices for decades in the fight for South Korean democracy, and who often led the charge last winter during the candlelight protests.

*hearing the joyous laughter and play-by-play commentary of female tv announcer 김미화, a blacklisted comedian during the PGH era.

*watching two female Korean hockey players—one from the north and one from the south—carry the torch together up the steps to its final destination.

*seeing all of the final steps of the lighting ceremony taken by strong Korean women.

In a globalized world dominated by media-driven symbols transmitted through screens across the globe, at a time when the leader of the world superpower is rejecting and demonizing refugees on the one hand and using their suffering to promote war with North Korea on the other, how the opening ceremonies in South Korea were handled and what message Koreans chose to convey to the world was of incalculable significance.

South Korea chose to celebrate the nonviolent revolution of millions of normal people against corrupt government and business leaders, and to tangibly display Korean athletes from north and south of the DMZ smiling, carrying a flame of peace together, up the stairs, to light a beacon of diplomacy for all the world to see. That’s incredible.

Thank you, South Korea, for the images you shared last night.

Despite the increasingly shameless attempts by Trump and others to present a mutually insulting split image of Korea–an image that depicts the northern half as a threat to the world in need of salvation through fire, and the southern half as unworthy of serious notice and unable to speak and act for itself—the image beamed out to the world last night was that of an ancient and majestic, unbroken mountain range. The home of an undivided and unafraid people.

Last night’s festivities drove home a defiant and joyful message of hope: a message that while mountains can divide us, they also deeply connect us. Just like the Baekdudaegan—the unbroken “spine” of the Korean Tiger—stretching from Baekdu in the farthest north to Halla in southernmost Jeju.

These are the images we need now.

And if it seems too idealistic, too naive, or even ridiculous to western viewers that Korea would spend so much time, money and energy to put on such a display of hope for peace and unity between the north and south, after decades of division and amidst the saber-rattling of South Korea’s greatest ally and North Korea’s most aggressive enemy: well, so did the idea of a corrupt dictator’s daughter being peacefully overthrown by children and grandparents with only songs and candles.

But that’s what happened here last winter. And as we saw last night, the candles are still burning brightly.


And now, back to The Hunger Games and US news.

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