Moon, Kim sister in warm handshake

North and S. Korean athletes march under one flag, 'showing sport's power to unite'

  • Published 10.02.18
US Vice-President Mike Pence and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's younger sister Kim Yo-jong at the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games on Friday. (AFP)

Pyeongchang, South Korea: The Winter Olympics sparked to life in a vivid, colourful ceremony of fire and ice in South Korea on Friday, though the diplomacy was tougher to choreograph in the stadium where leaders from nations that are sworn enemies sat close together.

South Korea, which is using the Pyeongchang Games to break the ice with North Korea, seated its presidential couple alongside US Vice-President Mike Pence and his wife, with two of the North's most senior officials sitting in the row behind.

President Moon Jae-in, who wants to harness the Olympic spirit to pave the way for talks over the North's weapons programme, warmly shook hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's smiling sister as well as the North's nominal head of state.

The South is still technically at war with the North after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, and the US and North Korea have recently swapped nuclear threats. Pence vowed only this week to tighten sanctions on the North.

Underlining Moon's efforts to re-engage with the North, the opening ceremony followed the story line of children wandering through a mythical landscape and discovering a world where people live in peace and harmony.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach told the crowd that by allowing their athletes to march together under one flag at the ceremony, North and South Korea had shown sport's "unique power" to unite people.

"All the athletes around me, all the spectators here in the stadium, and all Olympic fans watching around the world ... we are all touched by this gesture," he said.

The Olympics have provided some respite from years of tense relations between Seoul and Pyongyang, though just hours before the ceremony hundreds of anti-North Korean protesters scuffled with riot police outside the stadium, burning North Korean flags and pictures of its leader, Kim Jong-un.

South Korea's frigid February, where temperatures have plummeted to minus 20 degrees Celsius at night, has come as a shock to the system for athletes and visitors alike in the lead-up to these Games, prompting concerns about hypothermia at the opening ceremony.

The weather was a little milder than feared on Friday, but spectators still huddled near heaters, holding hot packs and slurping down steaming fishcake soup to ward off the chills. Reuters