North and South Korean gymnasts taking a selfie together. Photo by Dylan Martinez, Reuters.

The Tale of the Two Koreas and How Rio Gives Us Hope For One

It was more than just a selfie — one that speaks volumes.


I remember watching the 2008 Olympic Games when I was a little girl, glued to the TV screen, almost starry-eyed as Michael Phelps set and broke records and claimed eight gold medals. Even though I was young, I understood the Games were not merely a race for the survival of the fittest, but rather an arena for dreams, goals, healthy competition and pride in being chosen to represent the country dear to one’s heart.

However, as I grew up and took an interest in history, I learned about Jewish athletes barred from competing in the 1936 Berlin Games hosted by Adolf Hitler, to the “Munich Massacre” at the 1972 Summer Olympics, where six Israeli coaches and five Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists.

Gradually, I became quite disenchanted with the Olympic Games. Although I still cheered my heart out for Team USA and Team Korea, kept track of the medal count and watched a few events, I wasn’t as invested in the Games as when I was a starry-eyed child.

Until Rio, that is.

Yeah, I know that may sound odd to a whole lot of people — the situation in Rio has been chaotic at best. A shortage of volunteers, shabby security, the mysterious discoloration of the diving pool from blue to green and even pickpockets in broad daylight, are the realities of Rio. Despite these shortcomings, Rio has been quite perfect, thanks to a beautiful Olympic moment that perfectly embodies the sense of brotherhood key to the Olympic Movement — a North and South Korean gymnast taking a selfie together.

In what is deemed one of the most iconic photos of the Rio Games, 17-year-old Lee Eun-ju of South Korea is holding up her smartphone protected in an adorable LINE character case, forming a peace sign with her free hand. The young gymnast’s smile is to die for — her uneven teeth somehow make her smile more genuine; the kind that lights up a whole room. 27-year-old Hong Un Jong of North Korea is standing close to Lee, awkwardly, but willingly smiling into the phone camera.

The Internet has gone positively nuts over the camaraderie between Lee and Hong, from the same, but also radically different countries. Ian Bremmer, political scientist and president of Eurasia Group, took to Twitter to praise the occasion. Sports journalist, Bryan Armen Graham, also posted the photo on Twitter with the statement, “I love the Olympics.”

The gymnasts’ selfie is really a simple, everyday moment, but sadly, one that is almost always limited to movies, such as the 2012 South Korean sports drama film, “As One.” This is because the Korean Peninsula is still technically in a state of war.

“As One” official trailer.

Ever since its existence, Korea has basically been the target country of basically every other country in the Asian continent, especially Japan. From 1910 to 1945, Korea was controlled by Imperial Japan. During Japanese colonial rule, the Japanese committed a string of atrocities against Korea; one brutal example being “comfort women,” girls who were forced to work as sex slaves in Japanese brothels. Toward the end of World War II, when the Japanese surrendered to the Allied Powers, Korea was freed of colonial rule, but also divided into two spheres of influence — the USSR controlled the northern region, and the United States controlled the southern. Naturally, the north became communist, while the south formed an anti-communist, capitalist government.

On August 15, 1948, the Republic of Korea was founded, with Syngman Rhee as its first elected president. Subsequently, the USSR established the communist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, led by Kim Il Sung. Rhee and Kim worked together to reunify Korea, but because each wanted to unify the country under their political system, conflict ensued. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and thus, the Korean War began.

Map of Korea.
Today, Korea is the only divided nation in the world.

Hope isn’t entirely lost, however. The two countries have competed as a single team and marched together under a single flag. The Unification flag was first used in 1991 at the World Table Tennis Championships held in Chiba, Japan, where North Korea and South Korea competed against China as one team. The film “As One,” mentioned earlier, is the cinematic retelling of this event.

North and South Korean athletes in Sydney. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Likewise, the two countries’ teams marched together under the flag in the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy and the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar. There were loud cheers and standing ovations.

However, the Unification flag hasn’t always been used in good, harmless contexts, and I’m well-aware of that. For example, in 2012, South Korean political activist Ro Su-hui visited North Korea to commemorate the 100-day mark after the death of Kim Jong Il, which he allegedly called “the greatest sorrow of the Korean nation.” Hundreds of North Koreans waved the flag when saying goodbye to Ro, who illegally crossed the border to return to South Korea.

Ro waving the Unification flag to a crowd of North Korean supporters. Photo: Kim Kwang Hyon, AP

Believe it or not, there is quite a number of communist sympathizers like Ro living in South Korea, with whom I entirely disagree. Although it breaks my heart to witness rising tensions and hard feelings between the two Koreas, reunification is wholly unrealistic, at least for the moment. Every year, Korean communities living in the United States come together to pray for reunification, but unfortunately, such gatherings do not address the many calamities reunification will beget.

After all, North and South Korea are thoroughly different nations, with respect to disparate styles of governance, culture, politics and beliefs. Reunification will only stress the sociopolitical, economic and religious schisms of the two, not to mention spawn a huge financial dilemma.

But a girl can dream, can’t she? A nation can hope, can’t it?

I’m not one to encourage idealism, for the most part. But for once, I want to throw reality aside and take on the mindset of an innocent child. That’s why Lee Eun-ju and Hong Un Jong’s brief selfie moment at the Summer Olympics in Rio is so special to me, so dear to tens of thousands of Koreans all across the globe.

Watching the South Korean and North Korean gymnasts share a genuine moment gives us all a glimmer of hope, that one day, there wouldn’t be a north or south side to the Korean Peninsula. Watching them allows us to dream of a bright future, where elderly couples separated for 65 years won’t have to say, “Let’s meet again in the afterlife,” during brief reunions that are permitted once in a blue moon.

The harmless selfie was more than just a cute photo, but a representation of an unspoken sense of longing to reunite and compete as one. No more pain, no more tears, no more families torn apart by war.

So thank you, girls, for making the impossible seem possible. Thank you for uniting the Korean people in spirit.

And thank you so much, Rio, for the hopes and dreams.