South Korea government rejects 'Pyongyang Olympics' criticism

Protestors try to burn a picture of Kim Jong Un during an anti-North Korea rally in Seoul, South Korea, on Jan 22, 2018.
Protestors try to burn a picture of Kim Jong Un during an anti-North Korea rally in Seoul, South Korea, on Jan 22, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (Reuters, AFP) - Seoul's presidential Blue House rejected criticism on Tuesday (Jan 23) that next month's Winter Games had been hijacked by North Korea, saying the event will help defuse tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programmes.

Some opposition politicians and conservative civic in South Korea have criticised North Korea's participation in the Games, to be held in the South Korean alpine resort town of Pyeongchang, dubbing them the "Pyongyang Olympics".

A group of right-wing activists went as far as setting the North’s national flag and Kim Jong Un’s image on fire at a rally in Seoul on Monday, prompting a denunciation by Pyongyang.

They were “traitors and psychopaths” whose actions amounted to “defaming the dignity of the supreme leadership”, said Ri Myong, of the Democratic Front for the Reunification of Korea, which is linked to the authorities in the North.

“They are, indeed, human scum obsessed with pro-US sycophancy and confrontation with... fellow countrymen,” said the statement, carried by the state news agency KCNA.

In response to the protests and controversy, South Korea’s presidential office on Tuesday called on the public to welcome all countries participating at the Games.

"Just one month ago, acute tensions gripped the Korean peninsula, but the administration's efforts to tackle the crisis through dialogue has led to North Korea's participation in the Olympics," Blue House spokesman Park Soo Hyun told a news conference.

"We can't understand putting an outdated tag of 'Pyongyang Olympics' to the Pyeongchang Olympics, which will be a 'Peace Olympics'.

After a months-long standoff over the North's nuclear and missile tests, the two Koreas agreed during their first formal talks in nearly two years that the South will help arrange the North to join in the Games.

But some specific plans, including fielding a joint women's ice hockey team and marching under a united flag, have proven controversial, with conservatives and younger South Koreans upset that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is stealing the spotlight.

Small but vocal groups of South Korean demonstrators staged a protest at Seoul's central train station on Monday where a North Korean delegation had arrived.

One sign at the protest read: "We're opposed to Kim Jong Un's Pyongyang Olympics!".

"When North Korean athletes, cheerleaders and high-level officials came to attend the Asian Games in 2014, no one called it 'Pyongyang Asian Games,'" Blue House spokesman Park said.

"We're confident that the Olympics will be a stepping stone to bring peace to the Korean peninsula, to Northeast Asia and the world."

The administration of South Korea's liberal president, Moon Jae In, is also under pressure over its offer to send athletes to a North Korean ski resort for joint training.

Experts say the move risks giving Kim's regime legitimacy and some much needed cash.

Seoul officials are on a three-day trip to the North starting Tuesday to inspect the resort's facilities and the newly built Kalma Airport nearby that may be used to fly in the South Korean skiers, who are not expected to attend the Games.

It is the first visit to the North by Seoul officials for nearly two years, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency.

The visit by the South Korean delegation began a day after a group of Pyongyang officials ended a rare trip to the South to prepare for planned concerts by the North’s artistic troupes during the Games – also a part of the inter-Korea deal.

The trip – led by the director of the North’s popular Moranbong all-female-band – was the first time Pyongyang officials had visited the South for four years.

Another team of North Korean officials is also set to arrive in Seoul on Thursday to check logistics for its athletes and other representatives attending the Games. 

Moon's approval rating has fallen to a four-month low at 66 per cent, a poll showed on Monday, due to a backlash over the decision regarding the combined hockey team.