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South Korea Celebrates The Official Start Of The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics

Feb 9, 2018
Originally published on February 12, 2018 10:34 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLYMPICS OPENING CEREMONY)

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With drums, K-pop dancers and pyrotechnics, South Korea kicked off the Winter Olympics. Today's opening ceremony in Pyeongchang was frosty in temperature but symbolized a warming of relations between the two Koreas. NPR's Melissa Block reports.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: It was a bone-chilling 17 degrees in the heatless, roofless stadium. Spectators were given seat cushions and hand warmers, a blanket and hat to sustain them through a spectacle that combined Korean folklore, legend and futuristic technology. And, of course, what would any self-respecting Korean extravaganza be without...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGNAM STYLE")

PSY: (Singing) Oppan Gangnam style.

BLOCK: This song coincided with the entry of Team USA in the parade of athletes. And some of them pony-pranced along, Gangnam style, as they circled the stadium. But the athletes' show was stolen by the flag bearer from...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Tonga.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Tonga.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Tonga.

BLOCK: Maybe you remember him from the opening ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro two summers ago. Then Pita Taufatofua became an instant sensation by parading shirtless, his torso slathered in coconut oil. Well, today - and did I mention it was 17 degrees? - he did it again, wearing a grass skirt and sandals and a big, wide grin. He's competing in cross-country skiing by the way, but that's another story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Olympic athlete from Russia.

BLOCK: Russian athletes marched behind the Olympic flag since they're barred from flying their own or hearing their anthem at these games. That's part of the punishment handed down after revelations of a systemic state-sponsored doping program.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Korea.

BLOCK: The biggest cheer came naturally for the home team. And for the first time in 11 years, North and South Korean athletes paraded together under a unified flag, showing an undivided Korean Peninsula shaded in blue.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Imagine all the people living life in peace.

BLOCK: A delicate diplomatic dance lead to North Korea's participation in these Olympics. South Korea won the Olympic bid by promising that these would be the peace games, promoting reconciliation between North and South and helping to defuse nuclear tensions. In a stunning development, Kim Yo Jong, the influential younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, flew into South Korea for the games. This marks the first time since the Korean War that a member of the Kim dynasty has set foot across the border. So there was this remarkable sight in the presidential box at the opening ceremony - the South Korean president shaking hands with a powerful member of the North Korean regime.

Meantime, sitting just a few feet away and not shaking hands was Vice President Mike Pence, who heads up the U.S. delegation. This week, Pence warned that North Korea would soon face what he called the toughest and most aggressive economic sanctions ever. And he said he wants to make sure that North Korea doesn't use the Winter Olympics to, in his words, paper over the truth about their regime. As far as we know, the two did not speak. The peace and harmony games can only do so much. Melissa Block, NPR News, Pyeogchang, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.