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Olympic warmth splits views on divided Korean peninsula

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By Agence France-Presse

Untouched by Olympic bonhomie and unified Korean teams, Southern soldiers patrol the barbed wire fences that run towards the Demilitarized Zone, guarding against the nuclear-armed North.

At the northernmost tip of South Korea, just a few kilometers from the bristling fortifications of the world’s last Cold War frontier, opinions on the diplomatic drive that saw shows of unity at the Winter Games an hour away are as divided as the peninsula.

South Korean soldiers patrol the northernmost tip of South Korea, a region where opinions are divided on the new detente. (AFP / Ed JONES / MANILA BULLETIN)

South Korean soldiers patrol the northernmost tip of South Korea, a region where opinions are divided on the new detente.
(AFP / Ed JONES / MANILA BULLETIN)

Only a few months ago, Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests, and exchanges of threats with Washington, were driving tensions on the peninsula sky-high.

But in a whirlwind of Olympic diplomacy, hundreds of North Koreans came South last week to attend the Pyeongchang Games.

In extraordinary scenes the North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo Jong cheered a unified ice hockey team together with the South’s President Moon Jae-in.

Despite the sudden thaw in ties, little has changed near the DMZ, which has split the peninsula since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, leaving the two sides still technically at war.

On the way to the Goseong Unification Observatory, where curious visitors peek through large binoculars for a blurry glimpse of North Korea, soldiers huddle in a guard post against the bitter cold.

Souvenir stands at the observatory — admission price 3,000 won ($2.70) — offer a range of military-themed items from army snacks and electric airguns to DMZ wine.

“You can never trust North Korea,” said Shin Young-Sin, 51, who has had a jewellery stand at the site for a decade.

The Olympic rapprochement has seen Kim Yo Jong, acting as her brother’s special envoy, invite Moon to a summit in Pyongyang on his behalf — an offer sidestepped by Seoul’s leader, who said the “right conditions” were needed first.

Shin was sceptical.

“On the outside, they appear friendly but on the inside, they are always plotting something,” he told AFP.

Another vendor added: “As long as North Korea has nuclear weapons, nothing will change.”

‘Life will be good’

Others are eager for closer ties.

Just a few kilometres south, on the way to the checkpoint, the village of Myeongpa-ri used to prosper when thousands of South Koreans would flock across the border on tours to North Korea’s scenic Mount Kumgang.

But Seoul banned the tours in 2008 after a South Korean was shot dead by a North Korean guard and the passing trade disappeared.

Residents say some 400 local businesses have since closed down. “I can’t even describe my financial losses,” said Cho Soon-nam, a 67-year-old grocery store owner. “I don’t have any customers.”

Kim Deok-ja has lived in the village for 50 years and used to sell corn and potatoes to tourists driving up to the border.

“It will be great if North and South reunifies,” she said. “Life will be good.”

Many older South Koreans on both sides of the political divide harbour a nostalgic longing for some form of reunification — conservatives through the North’s collapse and conquest by the South, liberals through a more amicable arrangement.

But younger South Koreans have spent their adult lives in a culturally vibrant democracy regularly menaced and occasionally attacked by Pyongyang, which stands accused of widespread human rights abuses.

They have far less interest in unification and fear its social and economic consequences.

A poll last year found almost 50 percent of over-60s believed the two Koreas can be reunified, while just 20.5 percent of those in their 20s agreed.

But Kim Deok-ja — who married into a family of North Korean refugees — still harbours hopes.

She was delighted that Kim Yo Jong was visiting. “Doesn’t it signal that things are improving?” she said

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