[PyeongChang 2018] Tired of media coverage on North Korea? Here’s what South Koreans think

By Claire Lee

PyeongChang Olympics vs Pyongyang Olympics: No laughing matter for organizers, policymakers

  • Published : Feb 10, 2018 - 13:14
  • Updated : Feb 13, 2018 - 09:46

Jayine Chung says she gets frustrated whenever she switches on her TV these days. The 33-year-old, who works in the media industry in Seoul, collaborates often with foreign journalists who visit the peninsula to cover the two Koreas.

“All I see are North Koreans, Kim Jong-un, and Kim Yo-jong (when I turn on my TV),” Chung told The Korea Herald.

“As much as reconciliation and peace talks between the two nations are important, I feel that there should be a balanced coverage in the media.”

It is unclear whether Chung and her opinion belong to the majority or minority in South Korea. But no one would disagree that this year’s Olympic coverage has been heavily focused on the issues surrounding North Korea’s participation in the Games, rather than the sporting event itself in PyeongChang.

(Shot and edited by Park Ju-young)

At the same time, the hype is unsurprising, if not understandable. To recount the latest developments, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, arrived in South Korea for the Games on Friday. The South and North Korean athletes marched together behind a united flag at the opening ceremony. This year’s edition also features the first-ever -- and controversial -- unified Olympics team in women’s hockey. 

Some opposition politicians and public members in the country have criticized the communist state’s participation in the Games, dubbing this year’s event the “Pyongyang Olympics.”

They claim that the current South Korean President and his government are bringing attention to North Korea, rather than their own nation and, most importantly, its athletes. 

North Korean cheerleaders wave the unified flag of the two Koreas at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, Friday. (Yonhap)

Who deserves the attention?

“I think the current government’s mind is stuck in the ’80s,” said Park Ji-hyun, a 31-year-old nurse in Seoul.

“By bringing attention to things like the Korean Unification Flag, they make it look as if all South Koreans are desperate for unification with this Olympics. That’s certainly not the case, and people in this country have other real-life issues and problems to deal with other than the Olympics.”

Park said she was particularly disappointed by the South Korean government’s last-minute decision to form a unified Olympics team in women’s hockey. Some South Korean players could be cut or lose time on the ice as North Korean players will have to participate.  

“I think the government has been very disrespectful to the South Korean hockey players, who must have been affected by their decision,” she said.

“I personally don’t know much about hockey and don’t plan to watch it. But if anything, if anyone deserves spotlight during this Olympics I think it’s the athletes, not Kim Yo-jong.”

Kim Yo-jong (right), the sister of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, shakes hands with the South Korean President Moon Jae-in (left) at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, Friday. (Yonhap)

“We have not much else to show”

Kim Yeong-jun, a 32-year-old working professional in Seoul, was just as cynical as Park. On the other hand, however, he said he understands where Moon is coming from, and how the media coverage works with this Winter Olympics.

“I think it just shows how little we (South Koreans) have to show to the rest of the world in an event like this Winter Olympics,” Kim told The Korea Herald.  

“What do we have really? Smartphones and K-pop -- and that’s about it. The foreign media loves to talk about North Korea, and we have nothing much else to show. I guess he doesn’t really have a lot of options. And let’s be honest -- I think it’s challenging for any hosting country to make their Olympics interesting today. We live in an era where watching YouTube can be much more fun than watching the Olympic Games.”

Indeed, one of the most featured individuals by the foreign media leading up to the ongoing Olympics is Kim Hyon-hui, the surviving spy from the 1987 Korean Air flight bombing, as well as North Korean defectors currently living in South Korea.

“Whenever I read about South Korea in foreign media, I feel like I’m not living in the country they are talking about,” said an 34-year-old office worker who only wanted to be identified by her surname Choi.

“There’s always this gap -- my life is about presentations at work, my next credit card bills and planning my next vacation to South America. But on the foreign news, apparently I live in this country that is one of the most dangerous places to live in the world. And sometimes I get genuinely confused -- am I crazy for not caring enough about inter-Korean issues including this Olympics?” 

Athletes from the two Koreas march into the stadium with their unified flag during the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, Friday. (Lee Sang-sub/ The Korea Herald)

“A double-edged sword”

On the other hand, Haeryun Kang, the managing editor of Korea Exposé, says her personal interest in the Olympics in fact went up significantly because of North Korea’s participation, as there were “suddenly very tangible characters,” such as Kim Yo-jung, “spicing up the narrative of the ongoing Olympics.”

“I mean, yes, there is a lot of emphasis on North Korea, and this is a double edged sword obviously,” she said. “On one hand, it detracts attention from other athletes and sports unrelated to this particular North Korea frame, and again limits the context of South Korea and PyeongChang to North Korea. But the good side of the sword is PR.

“PR is all about memorable narratives and impressions you can imprint on the public. North Korea is a blessing in that way.”

Still, Chung remains skeptical of the general media coverage on the Winter Games so far.

“After all, isn’t the Olympics supposed to be non-political?” she said.

“Unfortunately, it’s as political as it can get for PyeongChang 2018. Hopefully, something good will come out of it.”

By Claire Lee (

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