The Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea are happening miles from the tense border with North Korea. The boundary has soldiers on edge, and nearby residents worried. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)

He was there on the other side of the river, but through the binoculars, there was no way to tell whether he was happy or miserable, content with his life or obsessed with finding a way out. He was just a figure working Wednesday morning in a field in the southwestern corner of North Korea, and for the purposes of those of us clustered on the southern side of the river, gawking from less than a mile-and-a-half away, he was presented as an exhibit.

The PyeongChang Winter Olympics officially will start Friday in this country — on this side of the river — and when you listen to organizers, you will hear how these are intended to be the “Peace Olympics” so many times that you either will start to believe it or become numb to it. Standing in someplace called the Odusan Unification Observatory on Wednesday morning, looking across the intersection of the Han and Imjin Rivers into North Korea, the history of the Korean Peninsula was plain to see. The land on either side of the rivers had for centuries been home to a single, unified nation. That man over there, the guy in the field on the other side of the Demilitarized Zone — isn’t it a shame he can’t rejoin his southern brethren?

Every Olympics has its backdrop, and some are more complicated than others. The Summer Games in Rio left us wondering how countries in which millions of residents endure impoverished lives could host such an expensive, extravagant festival — and to what end? The Sochi Winter Olympics four years ago introduced us to the ego and power of Vladimir Putin on his own turf. The 2008 Beijing Games put China’s human rights record in focus.

Now, this: a Winter Olympics hosted by an established economic force with a crotchety, antagonistic relative less than 50 miles away. The Peace Olympics will be an idea buoyed because athletes from North and South Korea will march together in Friday night’s Opening Ceremonies, because the two countries will form one women’s hockey team, because Koreans — whether from Seoul or Pyongyang — will root for other Koreans of any stripe. Wednesday even brought news that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un would be sending his younger sister, a powerful member of his inner circle, as part of a delegation to South Korea, an unexpected development that could be an indication that Kim might be willing to have a more productive relationship with the government in Seoul.

“We will use sports as a tool for peace,” said Lee Hee-beom, CEO of the PyeongChang Games.

It’s a nice thought, and it goes back to an Olympic ideal that has long been obscured by all the Coca-Cola and McDonald’s and Visa money.

But it’s also oversimplified, even painfully so. These Olympics could well be an athletic, commercial and even cultural success. But by themselves, they are not going to bring peace between countries — and that’s what they are, separate countries — that have been divided, initially against their will, since the end of World War II.


South Korean soldiers stand guard at Tongil bridge in Paju, at the end of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the two Koreas. (Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

We need no further evidence than to consider Kim’s other plans this week: a massive military parade to show North Korea’s might, staged on the eve of the Olympics. Maybe all those tanks and missiles simply had Thursday free on their calendars.

Because it’s clear, then, that these Olympics will be colored by the relationship — the history and future — between the two Koreas, on Wednesday morning I departed Seoul on a bus loaded with curious Westerners — mostly Americans — for a tour of the Demilitarized Zone, the DMZ. That such tours existed was news to me just weeks ago, as was the fact that you could look into North Korea, walk a few hundred yards and have lunch at a Popeyes. The disagreements between the two Koreas involve military might and human rights, and they’re all rolled into a smoking-hot geopolitical conflict.

“Is anybody scared? Nervous?” our guide, Gina Lee, asked as we pulled out of Seoul.

It’s nearly impossible, with the neon and high-def screens that mark Seoul’s skyscrapers, to believe that 60 years ago, South Korea was a third-world country with a recent history of Japanese control and a future that seemed iffy at best. At the end of the 1950s, the per capita gross domestic product was around $100. The wounds of the postwar division from the north — in which Japan was ousted but the Soviets controlled territory above the 38th parallel, the United States south of it — were fresh. The Korean War had just ended.

That story is an essential part of the South Korean experience, and the exhibits at the Odusan observatory focus on the pain the split caused. Brother was separated from brother, mother from daughter, father from son. It is an anguished tale, and the case for reunification is made throughout the five-story building on a mountaintop, windows pointing north.

“Our hope is reunification,” concludes a film, narrated in English, shown to Western visitors. “It is the greatest wish of the Korean people. We hope for one Korea.”

And yet present-day polls don’t reflect that sentiment. South Korean citizens with relatives left behind in the north are aging, almost all in their 70s and 80s. Young South Koreans know nothing of “one Korea” and have a keen understanding that reunification would come at a heavy financial cost to their country. Kim — and his father and grandfather before him — have stripped the North Korean people of their rights and their wealth, while South Koreans have worked for nearly three generations to build a society that values education and fosters competition so it can surge forward.

On our bus was Kim Hana, a 50-something woman who has invented a new name as she invents a new life. Kim is essentially a professional North Korean defector. Her job: telling the assembled how, in 2011, she walked for some 16 hours from her home to the North Korean border with China, how she waded through waist-high water into the guardianship of a smuggler, how she was then sold to another smuggler and forced to live with him for two years and how she eventually escaped to Cambodia and then Thailand before making her way to Seoul — all with her daughter left behind in North Korea. Had she been caught, she said through Lee’s translation, she would have been killed.

More than 30,000 defectors live in South Korea, and Kim did not hesitate when asked whether she favors reunification: Absolutely. She is now sending money back to her daughter through Chinese smugglers, but her daughter can’t allow her fellow townspeople to know she is receiving it. Looking into North Korea, which she now does as the means to make that money, makes her feel one emotion more than any other.

“Very sad,” she said.

So, then: Luge, anyone?

On Wednesday morning, as we looked across the river into North Korea, music wafted from the other side. Propaganda, we were told. The South Koreans do it, too. Further north and east, we stopped at Imjingak, where the so-called “Bridge of Freedom” extends across the Imjin — and the DMZ — into North Korea. If there were ever to be peace, the railroad tracks there could be reopened, and you could take a train from Seoul to, say, Paris.

Now it is a tourist site, a piece of South Korean history that, even Wednesday, was visited by schoolchildren. When these Olympics start, there will be no escaping the theme they studied there: the two countries that used to be one throwing their athletes together to compete as one, even as they remain wholly separate.