Seoul – South Korea tapped into some of the best of its past and future in an effort to flare up the public’s lacklustre interests in the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The Olympics torch arrived in Seoul on Saturday for a four-day relay throughout the capital city.
The torch first started to travel on a royal carriage used by kings during Korea’s last kingdom of Joseon (1392-1910), carried by the head of the royal family acting as Korea’s most revered King Sejong, from the main Gyeongbok Palace to the iconic Gwanghwamun Square.
At the last leg of the relay on Saturday, the torch was put on a drone and flew over the sky.
The live footage of the torch relay was transmitted and shown on screens in the square through South Korea’s indigenous 5G technology.
But to the disappointment of the organisers, the well-choreographed event, also joined by high-profile politicians and K-pop signers, failed to bring people to the streets with many parts of the square remaining quite empty until the end of the relay.
The rather chilly reception of the torch by the public epitomises the hardship that South Korea has been facing in promoting its first Olympics in 30 years, both domestically and internationally.
One relief is that security concerns among foreign athletes and visitors over North Korea’s threats were allayed, as the two Koreas held a landmark meeting earlier this week and announced that North Korea will send not only athletes, but also a cheerleading squad, an art troupe, and spectators.
While a majority of the public welcomes North Korea’s participation in principle (81.2 percent), 49.4 percent say they are opposed to the idea of the two Koreas entering the opening ceremony together under a flag depicting a unified Korean Peninsula, and 52.4 percent say South Korea should not help cash-strapped North Korea in paying for travel expenses, according to a recent poll jointly commissioned by local broadcaster SBS and the Office of the Speaker of the National Assembly.
Furthermore, 72.2 percent say they are against the idea of forming a unified sport team, and 70 percent say the annual joint South Korea-US military exercises, to which North Korea always reacts angrily, should be resumed.
The sentiment was quite apparent in the square, as we spoke to people.
“I think it is unreasonable for South Korea to pay [for North Korea’s travel expenses],” Lee Joo-yeon told Al Jazeera “Countries around the world are coming. North Korea should not be an exception.”
Kim Yeon-joo said that “North Korea’s participation might help the Olympics, but not necessarily South Korea”, adding that she was concerned that South Korea might end up paying too much for the North Korean delegation.
If Pyongyang’s recent peace overture was orchestrated to enhance its belligerent image and make South Korea lower its guard, it appears that the North Korean leadership did not realise the shifting attitude of the South Korean public over the past decade.
In 2002, North Korea sent its athletes and cheerleaders for the first time to its southern neighbour to take part in the Asian Games.
North Korea’s national flag was hoisted and its anthem was played out for the first time in South Korea since the 1950-1953 Korean war.
I was one of the last generations of students that received strong anti-communist education, which lasted until the end of the 1990s, and demonised the regime and the people in North Korea.
Many people in South Korea, including myself, were previously under the impression that North Koreans were wicked goblins with horns on their heads.
However, the elite squad of well-trained and good-looking female cheerleaders with enthralling charms sent a cultural shockwave across South Korea, destroying the deeply rooted stereotype.
Even, some of North Korea’s pop music became big hits in South Korea.
Many began to understand that people living across the border were, after all, humans and the same Korean people.
Of course, there were awkward moments that reaffirmed political and ideological differences between the two Koreas.
During the Universiade Games in Daegu in 2003, a bus carrying North Korean cheerleaders suddenly stopped on a highway. The cheerleaders, some of them with tears in their eyes, rushed to a welcome placard, placed on utility poles, with a picture of North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong-il shaking hands with late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung at the first 2010 inter-Korean summit.
The cheerleaders screamed, asking how a dear leader’s picture could be left alone on in the middle of streets without due respects, and took the placard down.
Today, a string of nuclear and long-range missile tests, since 2006, including last year’s H-bomb test and ICBM tests and Kim Jong-un’s ruthless style of leadership have made South Koreans cool-hearted over inter-Korean relations.
South Korea’s new liberal, pro-engagement president, Moon Jae-in, who came into office last May after nine years of conservative governments, seems to understand well that even with his exceptionally high and steadfast approval rating over 70 percent, he needs to take his liberal approach slowly and cautiously, when it comes to North Korea.