By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – Seoul’s presidential Blue House rejected criticism on Tuesday 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 programs.
Some opposition politicians and conservative civic in South Korea have criticized North Korea’s participation in the Games, to be held in the South Korean alpine resort town of Pyeongchang, dubbing them the “Pyongyang Olympics”.
“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“We can’t understand putting an outdated tag of ‘Pyongyang Olympics’ to the Pyeongchang Olympics, which will be a ‘Peace Olympics’.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.
Moon’s approval rating has fallen to a four-month low at 66 percent, a poll showed on Monday, due to a backlash over the decision regarding the combined hockey team.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Lincoln Feast)