GANGWON, South Korea — The sculpture that greets us as we enter the grounds of South Korea’s DMZ Museum is a large set of crossed hands, right one underneath, left on top, palm against palm, long, straight fingers extending into a frigid February sky. The hands are in close contact yet not quite together, neither in handshake nor grip, familiar but not bound.
So much like the country they represent.
The Winter Olympics are in full swing, moving on from the stirring but manufactured emotions of the Opening Ceremony to the beautifully spontaneous ones that go with competition. We came to South Korea to celebrate 17 days of winter sports, to crown the victors and cry for the defeated, to reunite with some familiar stars and revel in the instant creation of new ones.
But like every Olympic Games before and every one still to come, the competition does not happen in a vacuum, much as the International Olympic Committee might like it to. The setting is always part of the story, the host nation playing the dual role as both backdrop and star.
For South Korea, that means shining a spotlight on its most painful wound, the division from neighboring North Korea and the simmering tensions between two nations that, for centuries, were one.
While these Games have been touted as a modern-day path to peace, filled with hopeful images of a united Korean women’s hockey team, unexpected fascination with a peppy North Korean cheerleading squad, and a heretofore unthinkable appearance by the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the sum of those parts does not a peaceful panacea make. North Korea remains one of the most brutal nations on earth — repressive, aggressive, and rightfully regarded as one of the most dangerous nuclear threats.
Take the slivers of hope for sure, but let us never forget what reality is.
A morning spent touring the DMZ Museum and nearby military observation tower, which colleague Rachel Bowers and I did through a local Olympic-sponsored tour Sunday, served as a living reminder of how fraught that path to peace remains. From museum displays detailing how we got here to a real-life bird’s-eye view of what “here” looks like — the barren, barbed-wired yet beautiful area separating the two countries — the step outside the Olympics felt more like the real South Korea than an Olympic world built from scratch inside this mountain region.
So take the walk past those crossed hands and through the doors to learn how this small peninsula ended up torn in two in the aftermath of World War II; walk through the stories of invasion and war, United Nations intervention, and armistice agreements; take an up-close look at the personal effects of fallen soldiers, dried and hardened by time and mud; walk across a Plexiglas floor lined with replica landmines underneath, favored weapons in an ideological clash between communism and democracy.
Read the reason for the establishment of the DMZ itself, described as “a buffer zone through which two parties maintain a certain amount of space between them to prevent a direct military conflict,” and then join the group as it leaves its cellphones and cameras behind to board a different bus behind a military guide, and follow the long, steep road higher into the mountains, where soldiers bring you into their observatory tower briefing room.
Look out the wall of windows at the stunning vista all around, from the snow-capped mountains down to the crystal blue lake and white-capped sea. See the barren roads and barbed-wire barriers, and listen as the army officer describes the machine gun turrets hidden in the rocks, his fellow soldier’s high-powered camera delivering the video proof on a monitor before you.
And stop for a moment to remember, again, what this reality is. Remind yourself of the 90-minute bus ride from an Olympic media village during which the tour guide details Korea’s complicated history, from the five royal palaces to Japanese occupation, from World War II liberation to near-immediate 38th parallel division on US-Soviet lines, from a North Korean advance thwarted by the help of the UN police action that led to the Korean War, then to the 1953 cease-fire agreement that created the current stalemate.
Hear as she tells stories of devastated, divided families not knowing for decades whether their relatives were dead or alive. She remembered watching state-sponsored family reunion events and she cried at the irretrievable chunks of time and love her countrymen lost.
“The meetings were so emotional, I watched with my mom and we cried, but whole Korea cried together,” Kathy said, noting the last reunion event was held in 2015. “We all felt sympathy for these people saying they didn’t fear death, but not seeing their family. There are so many heart-breaking stories.”
She described one in which a couple, married at 18 and 19, were separated during the husband’s 10-day military training, and they remained divided when the line was drawn before he was done. She, pregnant, did not see or hear from him again until 2015, when their son was 65 years old. He apologized, and thanked her for raising their child. She forgave him, and thanked him for staying alive.
This, as much as or more than the Olympics, is the story of Korea.
The Peace Olympics, as these Games have been touted, are trying to change the narrative, but 17 days surely won’t be enough to bridge the deep divide.
Who knows what happens beyond the Closing Ceremony in two weeks’ time, whether an older, aging population of Koreans who largely support reunification can somehow effect change before their time runs out, or whether this younger, highly educated, technologically advanced population weighs the tax-paying cost of reunification heavier than anything else?
One of the final sections of the DMZ Museum charts North Korean aggression, acts such as the 1987 bombing of Korean Air flight 858, which killed all 115 on board. I couldn’t help but wonder. Would the room need more space in the future? Or would the path to peace be found?
These Olympics might — might — help find the way. But not if we turn these Games into a Disney movie and assume a happy ending. With North Korea involved, nothing is predictable.Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.