‘The Seoul Syndrome’ and the ‘Pyongyang Olympics’? South Korea on Thin Ice

South Korea’s president may think he’s promoting unity with North Korea, but he is alienating his own people and not making Kim Jong Un any more benign.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

On Sunday, North Korean singer Hyon Song Wol crossed into South Korea with six other members of her advance team, which will spend two days planning cultural performances at the Winter Olympics by the North’s singers, dancers, and pop musicians.

Hyon, known as the “girl on a steed” after her most famous song, passed through the Demilitarized Zone in a bus. She was greeted in Seoul by what The New York Times called “a media frenzy.”

In addition to Hyon’s 140-strong art troupe, North Korea will send a cheering squad of 230 members and hundreds of others, including a taekwondo demonstration team and officials.

Hyon’s visit is part of a geopolitical gambit of South Korean President Moon Jae-in to join together the two rival Korean states. At the Pyeongchang Games, to be held east of Seoul beginning Feb. 9, the South and North Korean teams will march in the Opening Ceremony together under one flag, showing a united Korean nation. The two rival states will field a single women’s ice hockey team, the first time they have done so.

Moon hopes that Pyongyang’s participation will lead to an incident-free Olympics and Paralympics, which end Mar. 18, as well as create the conditions for general peace and reconciliation on the troubled peninsula.

In pursuing his vision, Moon has, of course, angered conservative—and generally older—South Koreans. He can afford to do that. After all, he easily beat their candidate in the by-election last May 9. Yet he is also alienating a substantial portion of his own “progressive” political base, especially younger voters.

South Koreans of all political stripes are upset that women are being turfed off their ice hockey team to make room for North Koreans. Not only are the athletes “furious” and Korea Ice Hockey Association officials “utterly speechless,” more than 70 percent of the South Korean population is opposed to the joint team. That’s the case even though more than 80 percent said they supported North Korea’s participation in the Games.

Moon did not help his cause when he visited the team Wednesday to explain why politics was trumping merit. He declared women’s ice hockey was “a less-preferred sport.”

In view of all the events, some South Koreans are calling next month’s sporting extravaganza “the Pyongyang Olympics.”

Whether the Olympics belong to Pyeongchang or Pyongyang, the South’s leader, now 64, is out of touch. He is from a generation that struggled against military rulers to establish democracy. As a result, many South Koreans of his age exhibit a leftist—even pro-North Korean—bent because the military then was ferociously anti-communist.

Today, young South Koreans see the world in different terms. There is a South Korean nationalism that has replaced the Korean nationalism of Moon’s generation. “Undoubtedly we are two different and separate countries,” Lee Seung-kun, a 26-year-old, told Reuters. “No one questions that, so competing at the Olympics as ‘one country’ does logically not make any sense.”

Moon’s government claims to be the sole legitimate representative of the Korean people, so his moves have at least a theoretical foundation. Yet his approach to the North is losing favor, in large part because it has, in previous eras, failed. President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy and President Roh Moo-hyun’s Peace and Prosperity Policy, although providing billions of dollars of cash and other aid to the North, did not make the Kim regime any less dangerous.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Moon, who was Roh’s chief of staff, is now trying to resurrect those generous policies, and now many analysts are concerned. “Roh Moo-hyun did not in any way curtail North Korea’s rogue-state behavior or enable any improvements in human rights, nor did he bring the North and South even one step closer to peaceful unification,” Bruce Bechtol of Angelo State University told The Daily Beast, referring to the former president’s payments of cash to North Korea. “It only served to support an illegal and unlawful regime in the North that continues to create international security issues in the region. In short, the policy of shoveling money to the North Koreans failed once and it will fail again.”

Repeated failure is a warning sign. “I would call Seoul’s atavistic, unreformed submission to Pyongyang’s gangsterism the ‘Seoul Syndrome,’” Sung-Yoon Lee of Tuft’s Fletcher School wrote to me recently. “The more Pyongyang threatens and extorts, the more Seoul pays up.”

And the less North Korea has a reason to change its dangerous behavior. “After the Olympics, North Korea will continue to stay in the driver’s seat in inter-Korean dialogue and exchanges,” Greg Scarlatoiu, the executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, emailed The Daily Beast. “It will aim to control the agenda, extract maximum benefits, erode the U.N. sanctions regime, subvert South Korea, and drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.”

Moon nonetheless deeply believes in engagement with the Kimist state, pursuing what author Michael Breen calls, in comments to Reuters, his “romantic” vision.

The “real test of resolve” for Moon, says David Maxwell, who served five tours of duty in Korea as a Special Forces officer in the U.S. Army, is what happens if one of the North Koreans tries to defect during the Olympics. Will Moon “stand up for human rights and for an individual who seeks personal freedom?” Maxwell asked in email comments to The Daily Beast. Or will the South Korean president “give into Kim family regime demands to return the defector because he naively believes that to do so will allow the Republic of Korea to continue to engage with the regime in the hopes that carrots will change its behavior.”

A refusal to hand over a defector will create an incident that will almost certainly lead to friction between Seoul and Pyongyang. Moon, therefore, has risked much by hosting hundreds of North Koreans next month.

And he has gained little. Singer Hyon Song Wol’s arrival in South Korea created a sensation, but almost no one thinks the North will fundamentally change its behavior because of its participation in the Olympics. Hyon’s visit, although short, could mark the beginning of an especially turbulent period on the peninsula.