Torched Photos of Kim Jong Un Show South Korea's Olympic Divide

Updated on
  • Moon’s popularity among younger people sinks to all-time low
  • President calls on nation to get behind Pyongyang taking part
Koreas to Form Joint Olympic Women's Ice Hockey Team

A glamorous North Korean singer arrived at Seoul’s main train station on Monday to a media frenzy and raucous crowds. Also present were protesters burning her national flag and photos of her leader Kim Jong Un.

Hyon Song Wol

Photographer: Korea Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The mixed reaction to Hyon Song Wol’s presence illustrates the divide south of the demilitarized zone over North Korea’s involvement in the Winter Olympics next month in Pyeongchang. While South Korean President Moon Jae-in has invited hundreds of North Korean musicians, athletes and officials to take part in a push for peace, his critics at home are becoming more vocal.

Moon’s approval rating fell six percentage points to 67 percent in a Gallup Korea poll last week, the largest drop since July and near his historic low of 65 percent in late September. While still higher than many other world leaders, the slip reflects unease among South Koreans who resent sharing the global stage with a renegade regime.

Moon is seeking to use the Olympics as a lever to spur negotiations on halting North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Kim sees his arsenal as essential to deterring an invasion by the U.S. or others. President Donald Trump’s administration has backed the participation by Pyongyang in the Games while seeking a united front with Moon on the need for Kim to lay down his arms.

The U.S. has no plans to meet with North Korean officials during the Olympics, Yonhap News reported, citing an emailed comment from an unidentified State Department spokesperson.

Read here for more on the plans for the Olympics

Moon on Monday called for South Koreans to get behind North Korea’s involvement. He noted the fragility of the conciliatory mood, saying South Korea has a “precious opportunity” to pave way for North Korea’s peaceful denuclearization.

“I ask you to protect this inter-Korean dialogue as you would a candle in the wind,” Moon said. “I ask politicians and the media to help ensure a successful hosting of the Pyeongchang Olympics.”

Activists burn a portrait of Kim Jong Un in Seoul on Jan. 22.

Photographer: Kim Jae-Myeong/Donga Daily via Getty Images

At the center of the Olympics disquiet among ordinary South Koreans is Moon’s decision to allow a unified women’s ice hockey team to compete, potentially denying some South Korean athletes a spot. While the government in Seoul has pledged to prevent any impact on its athletes, the International Olympic Committee said on the weekend the 22-member squad must include at least three North Korean players.

Youth Vote

Nearly half the respondents to a Realmeter poll last week said the Korean teams should march at the opening ceremony under separate flags, more than the 41 percent who want them to march under a single banner. Many people also oppose the government giving assistance to North Korea such as paying for the delegation’s stay.

Perhaps most worrying for the president is the fall in his support among voters in their 20s and 30s. Approval among these two age groups was as high as 94 percent in the weeks after his inauguration last May, but has now slipping to 75 percent and 82 percent, respectively.

Moon Jae-in's Popularity Among Young Voters

It's waning.

Gallup Korea polls

Moon needs strong public support to push through reforms to reshape institutions and the economy. He also needs voters on his side as he pushes a two-track approach on North Korea of both pressure and engagement.

Younger South Koreans are liberal in all aspects except regarding North Korea, according to Lee Jae-mook, who teaches political science at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul.

“The first image that North Korea reminds them of is past provocations or current nuclear threats,” Lee said. “The young people are also living in a world they call a hell. They’re busy trying to feed themselves every day amid tough competition for survival and not ready to pay for North Korea for their delegation’s stay or unification.”

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