Three Things to Look For in the 2018 Winter Olympics

As we come to Opening Ceremonies of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, I am sharing what will be the first of several articles by Joel Kim, President of Westminster Seminary California. Kim is a Korean-American who was born in South Korea before immigrating to America, and has a special interest in Korean Christianity, both its history and its current form. Over the course of the next couple of weeks, he will be providing some insights into the country that is hosting the games, as well as its people, its religion, and its future. So with no further ado, I turn it over to Rev. Kim.

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Like many around the world, I am looking forward to the official beginning of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games tonight.  As an avid fan of sports, the Olympic games provide an opportunity to immerse myself in obscure sporting events that I am unable to enjoy most other times. I particularly enjoy short-track speed skating, an exciting sport that combines unbelievable speed and risky strategy. As a fan of travel, the Olympic games also offer a front-row view of countries and destinations often unfamiliar to me, increasing my exposure to and knowledge of places around the world that I hope to visit one day.

But the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games feel different to me. Perhaps because I am a Korean-American who was born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States, this Olympic Games feel much more personal and interesting as the whole world focuses on South Korea. In what ways, you ask?

First, I am interested in the way the story of South Korea is shared. On the one hand, the focus will be on the way the Koreans present themselves, especially during the opening ceremonies. Called “majestic” and “very Korean” by South Korean reporters who attended the dress rehearsal, the opening ceremony will attempt to tell a story of Korea with the title “Peace in Motion” that highlights the traditional theme of “harmony” and the modern concept of “fusion” that the producers believe characterize modern Korea. On the other hand, it will be interesting to see how Korea is characterized by the world, especially by North American media. South Korea is more than just Samsung electronics, Hyundai cars, and North-South relations, and how the cameras and reporters highlight Korea will be interesting to watch.

Second, I intend to follow closely the unfolding public relationship between North and South Korea. It is difficult to forget that the Olympic Games are being held less than one-hour away from the most militarized border in the world. The discussions about whether North Korea will send a delegation or whether the two nations will march together in the opening ceremony and under what flag betray not only a volatile political environment but the complex relationship between the two nations that are neighbors who share the same heritage and enemies who are still technically at war.  The Korean War looms large for most Korean families when over 1.3 million South Koreans and over 500,000 North Koreans were killed, leaving generations of families broken and scarred. South Korean children of my generation grew up singing a song with the words “my only hope is reunification,” an expression of collective pain and hope.

Finally, as a Christian, the role and place of Christianity in South Korea intrigues me. As the map of Christianity continues to shift from Europe and North America to Asia and the global south, South Korea is often viewed as a symbol of the changing Christian landscape. This is undeniable in some ways. South Korea has seven of the ten biggest churches in the world, is second only to the US in the number cross-cultural missionaries produced, and offers an awe-inspiring view of bright-lit crosses on top of church buildings, a sight to see when one flies into South Korea at night. Yet despite the visible signs of success and growth of Christianity, South Korea remains a country struggling with the influences traditional religions, such as shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism, ancestral worship, and others, and its moral and intellectual culture is quickly moving beyond Christianity like the US. The role and engagement of churches in the midst of a global event like the Olympic Games will offer an interesting glimpse of the state of Christianity in South Korea.

These are some things that interest me as the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games begin. What about the upcoming Olympic Games interests you?