WHEN Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, agreed to allow North Korean athletes not only to attend the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, but also to march alongside South Korea’s team at the opening ceremony on February 9th, and to form a unified women’s ice-hockey team with the South, he knew not all South Koreans would be happy. The outcry from conservatives who see the northern regime as an implacable foe was predictable.
Protesters set fire to North Korean flags and photos of Kim Jong Un, the North’s blood-drenched despot. One conservative MP accused the government of hosting the “Pyongyang Olympics”, single-handedly undermining South Korea’s long campaign to distinguish between the Olympic city and the North Korean capital. The hawks railed at the exemptions that had to be made to local and American laws to allow a plane from the South to take skiers to the North for training, and to permit a ship from the North to ferry the 140-piece Samjiyon orchestra to the South. When it ran out of fuel on arrival, they fumed that getting it moving again would amount to a violation of UN sanctions. Not unreasonably, they questioned the propriety of welcoming delegates such as Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yong Nam, the North’s ceremonial head of state, especially after Mr Moon announced that he would have breakfast with the pair on February 10th.
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What Mr Moon did not expect was the hostile response of young, liberal voters, whose support had carried him to the presidency last year. Following the announcement of the Olympic rapprochement, his approval ratings slipped to their lowest level yet, with respondents in their 20s and 30s especially negative. “I feel like sports has been manipulated for political ends,” grumbles Kim Ju-hee, a 23-year-old living in Seoul. Almost four-fifths of South Koreans, including Ms Kim, support North Korea’s attendance at Pyeongchang as a way to thaw the ice between the two countries. More than 150,000 people have applied for tickets to see the Samjiyon orchestra perform during the games. But over 60% of people in their 20s draw the line at the idea of a joint ice-hockey team. Many on social media took issue with the “parachuting in” of the 12 North Korean athletes at the last minute. “It’s unfair for our players. They weren’t consulted,” Ms Kim insists.
When Mr Moon was last in government in 2002, as an aide to the late president Roh Moo-hyun, over 80% of South Koreans supported a joint North-South entrance to the Asian Games in the South Korean city of Busan. The two countries were enjoying a detente, with Roh even visiting Pyongyang for a summit. All told, northern and southern teams marched together at seven different events between 2000 and 2007.
But South Koreans in their 20s and 30s grew up at a time of worsening relations as the North developed missiles and nuclear bombs. The generation that remembers an undivided Korea is dying out. Of the 130,000 South Koreans who registered as having been separated from family members in the North after the Korean war, only 60,000 remain alive today—and 60% of them are over the age of 80.
The frosty reaction to the joint hockey team is a reflection of these changes, argues Kang Won-taek of Seoul National University. Studies show that young South Koreans with no personal connection to the North are less willing than older generations to contemplate personal sacrifices for the sake of unification. As Mr Kang puts it, “North Koreans can come to the party, but they should do their own thing.”
Correction (February 9th 2017): An earlier version of this article misstated the date that Mr Moon would meet the North Korean delegation. This has been updated