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As Olympics open with dazzling spectacle, all eyes are on North Korea

Franck Fife | AP
Franck Fife | AP
Fireworks are set off during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018.
By Anna Fifield, Washington Post

The Winter Olympics opened in Pyeongchang on Friday night, amid bone-chilling weather but warming relations between North and South Korea.

Almost 2,500 athletes from 93 countries will compete in 102 medal events across 15 sports in the 23rd edition of the Winter Games, which will continue through Feb. 25.

The South Korean hosts, who spent about $13 billion on their Olympic effort, put on a dazzling display planned for the opening ceremonies, titled “Peace in Motion.”

Athletes from the two Koreas were set to march into the Opening Ceremonies together on Friday night, walking under the blue and white “unification flag” which shows the peninsula as one. They will then field a unified women’s hockey team on Saturday, playing in blue jerseys with a simple “Korea” on them.

But they also hope to broker some peace behind the scenes, with Vice President Mike Pence and a delegation of senior North Korean officials attending a VIP reception before the Opening Ceremonies, and then the ceremony itself.

It is not clear if Pence will meet Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s constitutional head of state, and Kim Yo Jong, the leader’s sister, even briefly. When asked about the possibility, the vice president has said “we’ll see what happens.”

But South Korean media reported that President Moon Jae-in lobbied Pence at their dinner Thursday night to agree to a “brush past” with the North Koreans.

The North Koreans are sitting next to U.N. Secretary General António Guterres at the opening.

Both Pence and the North Koreans will remain in South Korea Saturday, when Kim Yong Nam and Kim Yo Jong are due to have lunch with Moon.

The outreach is part of an effort to use the Games, which are taking place just 50 miles from the border with North Korea, to promote peace on the peninsula.

At a reception before the opening ceremony for 200 visiting dignitaries, including the North Korean delegation, Moon said the Games were bringing together the estranged Korea’s.

“Had it not been for the Pyeongchang Olympics, some of us might not have had chance to be together in the same room,” he said. “However, what is more important than anything else is that we are all here together now; we can cheer for athletes together and talk about our future. We are here together and that alone will be a precious starting point for a step forward toward world peace.”

Moon cited the words of a poet: “A snowman starts with a snowball.”

“The female ice hockey players from the two Koreas are now holding a small “snowball” in their hands,” he said. “Together, we should start rolling the small snowball carefully with our hands. Now, if we put our hearts and minds together, it will continue to grow larger and larger and turn into a snowman of peace.”

But there was bad news for Russian athletes just hours before the opening of the games. The Court of Arbitration for Sport denied a last-minute appeals filed by 45 Russian athletes who were hoping for an 11th hour invitation to the Games.

Although some events have already begun, the Olympics were officially opened with a ceremony including Korean cultural performances in addition to the standard lighting of the Olympic cauldron and fireworks, which will take place in temperatures just above freezing.

In the opening show of the ceremony, five children from Gangwon, the host province of the Games, represented the five Olympic Rings and the five elements — fire, water, wood, metal, earth — that are believed to make up the universe.

They were led back in time by a White Tiger, taken on an adventure involving the creation myth of Korea. The stadium was illuminated with the chart of the constellations in the sky. The tiger was transformed into the Baekdu mountain range, which runs from Mount Baekdu in the north of North Korea to Mount Jiri in the south of South Korea.

The concept of a unified Korean Peninsula continued, with an old man quietly singing the Korean folk song Arirang, a song of longing that continues to tug at heartstrings in both North and South to this day.

Continuing their journey, the five children arrived at a glittering gate, a gate to the future, symbolizing South Korea’s transformation into a high-tech powerhouse.

Once their time travel came to an end, the five children came back to the present, holding candles. Then 1,000 residents of Gangwon province entered the stadium, holding candles in white cups and standing in formation to make a dove of peace.

The candles have particular significance in modern day South Korea. Moon, the president, was elected after hundreds of thousands of South Koreans took to the streets for weeks on end, holding candlelight vigils to protest the previous president. That president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached and is now detained while on trial on bribery charges.

The candles have come to symbolize the power of the people and of democracy in South Korea.

When it is time for the athletes to enter the stadium, Greece will come in first, as is traditional. But the order in which the countries follow will be determined by their spelling in the Korean alphabet, hangeul.

The “G” sound comes first so Ghana will follow Greece. Then comes Nigeria and South Africa (the Korean word for south is “nam”).

The ceremony took take place inside a $60 million, 35,000-seat, pentagon-shaped stadium that has been built especially for the Games. It is a temporary structure that will be dismantled after the event.

But the stadium has no roof and this part of South Korea is known for its wind — so much so that it’s the place where pollock fish, a local delicacy, is hung out on lines here to dry in the freezing gusts.

The weather is forecast to be between 28 degrees (-2C) and 23 degrees Fahrenheit (-5C) for the opening ceremony.

As the Games neared and the temperatures plunged, organizers have scrambled to deal with the cold. Those attending the opening ceremony will be given packs containing hot-packs for feet and hands, heated seat cushions, a blanket and a hat.

The South Korean organizers have also built shelters around the Games venues to provide some respite from the cold.

The organizers have had to deal with another unwelcome problem: an outbreak of Norovirus. The number of people infected with the contagious vomiting and diarrhea bug had risen to 128 at latest count, with cases reported at three separate sites.

Health authorities have quarantined security staff at the site where the virus began, and soldiers have been deployed to fill in. They are conducting emergency inspections to try to isolate the cause of the outbreak.

But there is one aspect where health officials were very prepared. About 110,000 condoms — a Winter Olympic record — are being distributed to athletes in Pyeongchang. That works out at about 37 condoms per athlete.

Pence is representing the United States at the opening ceremony, accompanied by Fred Warmbier, the father of the University of Virginia student who was died after being returned from 17 months’ detention in North Korea in a coma and with severe brain damage.

Earlier on Friday, they visited the memorial to the 46 sailors who died on when the Cheonan, a South Korean naval corvette, was sunk by a North Korean torpedo in 2010, and heard from North Korean defectors.

Pence has said he doesn’t want North Korea to be able to “hijack” the Olympics with its propaganda and has sought to highlight its human rights abuses as the regime embarks on this Games-related charm offensive.

The vice president has also brought with him Gen. James Thurman, a former commander of the United States Forces in Korea and someone rumored to be in consideration to be nominated as ambassador to South Korea.

For its part, North Korea has put together a huge delegation to the Olympics in just a matter of weeks.

It includes 22 athletes, 21 reporters, and 229 members of a “cheering squad.” A 140-member orchestra played in a concert hall near the ice skating and hockey venues Thursday night, performing crowd-pleasing South Korean pop songs from the 1980s as well as some inoffensive North Korean songs about loneliness and separation.

But the big political deal happened on Friday afternoon, when Kim Jong Un’s sister and close adviser, Kim Yo Jong, arrived at Seoul’s main airport on a private jet. After meeting with officials from South Korea’s Unification Ministry at their airport, the delegation boarded the brand-new high speed train to bring them to Pyeongchang.

Also in the delegation is Choe Hwi, a senior official who is blacklisted by the U.N. Seoul had to seek a special exemption from the U.N. for Choe to be allowed to spend three days in South Korea.

Choe and Kim Yo Jong are both under direct American sanctions for human rights abuses related to their roles in censoring information in North Korea.

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